Juvenile citation bill advances in Senate

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Although law enforcement and their allies spoke out in opposition, a Senate committee passed a bill on Wednesday that would create a list of first-time misdemeanors that would lead to civil citations instead of arrests for youths under 16 years of age.

The legislation, sponsored by Rockledge Republican Thad Altman’s bill (SB 408) would in most cases lead to civil citations instead of arrests. Juveniles would be diverted to perform community service and participate in intervention programs appropriate to their offenses.

“What we’re trying to do is get kids out of the system,” Altman told his colleagues on the Senate Children, Families, and Elder Affairs Committee.

Among the misdemeanor offenses that would qualify under his bill include possession of alcoholic beverages by persons under 21; battery (if the victim approves the juvenile’s participation in a civil citation or similar diversion program); theft; involving in riots; disorderly conduct; possession of certain amounts of cannabis or controlled substances; possession of drug paraphernalia and resisting an officer without violence.

However law enforcement agencies have already expressed previous concerns as the bill has wound its way through the Senate and House (where a companion bill is being sponsored by Doral Republican Carlos Trujillo), and a representative from the Florida Sheriffs Association (FSA) told the committee they still have a number of objections.

“We’re talking pot, possession of marijuana that’s about 35 to 40 cigarettes,” said FSA Assistant Executive Director of Operations Sarrah Carroll. She also objected to the possession of drug paraphernalia provision, spelling it out that would include crack pipes and heroine syringes.

There has also been concerns about a central data base where the Department of Juvenile Justice could tally such citations. Carroll said she understood that DJJ was working on a plan that might be viable by summer, though an official with the department later said that such a system is currently up and running.

Barney Bishop with the Smart Justice Alliance said the issue wasn’t about a central repository, but the fact that the law would take discretion out of the hands of local law enforcement.

“You’re not letting that officer make a decision, your telling them what to do! That’s wrong. This is not about a data bases, this is about second guessing a law enforcement officer who’s on the secene, making that decision,” Bishop thundered. He added that the state has civil citation programs in effect in most of the state currently, with thousands of kids being diverted everyday. “Please, don’t take away their discretion,” he warned. “It’s wrong, and you’re not going to get where they want to be.”

Bishop ultimately said that his organization could not support the bill.

“One of the things that I heard today is we’re not here yet, and I agree with that,” said Inverness Republican Charlie Dean, who voted against the bill.

The original bill would include teens 17 years and under. It was then amended to 14 years of age, but Altman passed an amendment on Wednesday that would put the age of eligible teenagers to those younger than 16 years old.

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.