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Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober shifts position on juvenile pot charges

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Critics of the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline” could be on their way to a huge victory in Hillsborough County. According to the Tampa Tribune, State Attorney Mark Ober has shifted his position on addressing first-time juvenile marijuana offenders with civil citations instead of criminal charges.

Ober’s opposition last year helped kill efforts to include misdemeanor marijuana possession on the list of eligible civil citation offenses. Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee joined him in that opposition. Gee remains opposed, but said he was open to discussing the matter further.

“We feel with a juvenile, it’s in their best interest to be presented in front of a drug court so they can be afforded drug treatment or a drug education program which, as far as we understand civil citation, doesn’t include that,” said Sheriff’s office spokesman Larry McKinnon to the Tampa Tribune.

In fact, that argument is one used by many critics of civil citations for pot. When a juvenile is arrested on a drug charge they appear in drug court where they are drug tested and evaluated for risk level. The argument is that with a civil citation program, the same oversight may not be as readily available.

Hillsborough County is the only one of 59 counties in Florida with civil citation programs to not include misdemeanor marijuana possession in the program.

With a civil citation, juvenile offenders and their families would have to agree to terms of the citation that include restitution, an apology and undergoing an assessment to detect possibly underlying problems. But this is not necessarily as extensive as what happens to a juvenile who is arrested.

Circuit Judge Jack Espinosa spoke to the Tribune about his opposition to treating juvenile marijuana arrests as a civil offense rather than arresting the child.

“People might be surprised, but many times their parents don’t know these things are happening,” he said to the Tribune. “It’s an opportunity to help them at a very critical time.”

The argument for civil citations goes directly against Espinosa’s statement that seems to suggest kids getting arrested is the best way to get them back on track.

Supporters of civil citation look at it as a way to avoid saddling young residents with a criminal record. Doing that increases a child’s risk of dropping out of school and makes it harder to find a job and stay out of trouble. For many that is seen as a sure- fire way to ensure a child will have a future that includes plenty of crime.

But under the current marijuana possession arrest policy, juveniles can get their records expunged – avoiding the burdensome baggage that comes with a record. Once a juvenile first-time offender finishes all of the requirements for his or her charges, they can have those charges dropped and subsequently expunged.

However, the process in doing that is both costly and complicated, leaving many poorer families out in the cold. Some don’t realize the ramifications and just don’t bother.

The conversation unfolds just as the Hillsborough County Juvenile Justice Board is set to discuss a Project on Accountable Justice report that recommends using civil citations in pot cases.

The report showed marijuana possession is an appropriate offense for civil citation programs. It used data from the other 58 counties using the program. Recidivism rates for marijuana possession were five percent. That’s about the same as things like assault or disorderly conduct. It’s also on par with other civil citation offenses; suggesting adding the drug offense would likely be a success.

Of course, there’s also the race issue. Of the nearly 3,000 juvenile arrests made in the 2013-14 fiscal year, more than 53 percent of them were black. Black people make up just 17 percent of Hillsborough’s population.

While this conversation is relatively exclusive to juvenile marijuana possession, it also comes at a time when Tampa, the county’s largest city, is facing heat over their bike citation policy. A report in the Tampa Bay Times last month showed blacks were being disproportionately ticketed for bike-related offenses like not having a proper light when riding at night. In one instance, a man’s bicycle was even taken away from him because he couldn’t produce a receipt for purchasing it. The bike was later returned to him.

In those instances, juveniles also face problems. The Times noted that one young black male didn’t pay his bike citations and it later affected his driving record even though he had never gotten a traffic ticket.

As tension over race relations heats up nationwide, this seems to be one way Hillsborough County can take a step toward improving conditions for minority residents by keeping youth from being saddled with arrest records as they enter adulthood.

Though Ober has come on board with loose support for civil citations for juvenile marijuana charges, Gee’s continued opposition could be the lynch pin. The Juvenile justice Board will discuss the report on civil citations at its meeting on May 15.

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email janelle@floridapolitics.com.

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