Years ago, Florida lawmakers decided that if you’re under the age of 18 and you get arrested for the first time for a minor crime, you deserve a second chance.
A one-time mistake shouldn’t send you to jail with more serious criminals or make it difficult for you to get a job, they said.
So, the Juvenile Civil Citation program was born. It allowed juveniles who get charged with certain misdemeanors to avoid arrest by completing community service, paying restitution, attending counseling and abiding by any number of other sanctions prescribed by a judge.
Since then, most seem to agree that the program works, reducing recidivism among juveniles while also saving tax money, allowing prosecutors to focus on more serious crimes.
Now, one group wants to take the program a step further.
The Florida Smart Justice Alliance, a new group that promotes changes in the criminal justice system, is promoting the concept of adult civil citations.
Last month it announced an agreement with law enforcement in Tallahassee and surrounding Leon County that would allow law enforcement officers there to issue citations to first-time offenders who are adults.
“We had enough of a track record with the juvenile program that we knew that it was saving the state a lot of money,” said Mark Flynn, president of the Florida Smart Justice Alliance.
Some Tampa Bay authorities, who have taken note of the effort and will keep an eye on the results in Tallahassee, expressed cautious consideration of whether the program would work locally.
“I think it’s an idea that probably has some merit,” said Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. “It keeps it out of the criminal system and could save a tremendous amount of money.”
Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee also expressed interest in the effort, but he questions whether individual deputies or officers should have discretion over who gets cited, as the Leon County program allows.
“I kind of like the idea,” Gee said. “But somebody has to oversee it. I don’t think we want a police officer to make that determination.”
Proponents of the effort point out several things:
The offenses must be nonviolent.
The offenders will pay all costs associated with the sanctions, including the cost of treatment for any substance abuse or mental health condition that contributed to the offense.
And a failure to meet all of the requirements of the program would result in arrest and regular criminal court proceedings.
In Hillsborough County, the State Attorney’s Office already practices a similar concept with its misdemeanor intervention program.
The program prescribes community service and other sanctions for a variety of crimes.
In return, the State Attorney’s Office drops the charges.
“The fact that it’s (not prosecuted) allows them to get the record sealed or expunged,” said Douglas Covington, the assistant state attorney who manages the program and likens it to the adult civil citation program.
“It’s essentially almost the same thing,” he said.
There is one key difference, which the Smart Justice folks point out.
Under the adult civil citation program, the offense will not show up as an arrest, Flynn said.
People who receive citations don’t even have a mug shot photo taken.
But local authorities are far from sold on the idea.
“I think you’d have to be pretty discriminating in what cases you used it for,” said Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe, who said he was unfamiliar with the adult civil citation effort.
“Just because something is a misdemeanor doesn’t mean there isn’t a victim,” McCabe said.
State law is also an issue. The juvenile civil citation program is written into state statute. The adult program is not.
And there are questions about what changes local law enforcement officials would need to make in order to institute the program.
“There is likely going to be a little difference between county to county,” Flynn said. “Personally, how I feel is that local officials should be encouraged to design a program that works for them,” Flynn said.
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