THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, June 19, 2012
Florida law enforcement and criminal justice officials say the use of civil citations for troubled youth, rather than a lock-up, is slashing costs, and giving kids a better chance of a turn-around, and they want the practice to become more widespread.
But civil citations also represent a new way of doing business that threatens contracts for more traditional providers – mainly those who run detention facilities.
A civil citation is offered in lieu of an arrest only kids who commit misdemeanors. They get one chance to avoid a criminal record that can affect their future educational, professional or military lives – what amounts to a lifelong punishment for an offense such as trespassing or fighting at school.
"We don't want [youth] to go deeper into the criminal justice system, because it's detrimental to them and it's very expensive," said Steve Casey, executive director of the Florida Sheriffs Association.
Roughly 40 programs statewide offer civil citations, which seek to target the roots of their delinquency through family counseling and substance abuse and mental health treatment.
Miami-Dade public defender Carlos Martinez, who has worked with civil citations for seven years, calls them "one of the most important innovations we've had in juvenile justice in the last decade" in his jurisdiction.
"It's a critical issue in Florida," he said, where – unlike most other states – if young people are arrested, they get fingerprinted – and their prints are forever on file at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
"Children as young as five or six have been arrested, said Martinez, "and that information follows them for life, even if the case is dismissed in Florida, even if this person doesn't have any future problems."
What's more, said David Utter, policy director at the Southern Poverty Law Center, often juveniles are arrested and then the charges evaporate, leaving them with criminal records. In 2010, he said, 11,300 young Floridians were arrested at school only to have their cases dismissed or diverted.
In Florida, criminal records are public records, so a youthful arrest – even if ultimately dismissed – can affect getting an apartment, not to mention a job.
"Future employers will look at it," agreed Nancy Daniels, public defender for the Second Judicial Circuit and president of the Florida Public Defender Association.
According to a 2011 study by the Florida TaxWatch Center for Smart Justice, civil citation programs save taxpayers between $44 million and $139 million annually and reduce the number of youth in the juvenile justice system by 40 percent – 30,153 youngsters between 8 and 17. The study also showed reduced recidivism and the redirection of time and money to more pressing public safety concerns.
The state Department of Juvenile Justice is strongly behind civil citations, and its research shows that seven percent of youth who receive them go on to re-offend within a year, compared to nine percent of youth who re-offend after participating in prevention programs. Fully 99 percent of those who receive civil citations complete the programs, officials say.
"Eighty-six percent of the children are not violent," said DJJ Secretary Wansley Walters, "and most are not even serious offenders."
But while DJJ is working to get stakeholders on board, different jurisdictions have different approaches – teen courts, law enforcement agencies or private providers – to deal with juvenile delinquency.
"We have teen court because it's so good," said Scott Wilder, spokesman for the Polk County Sheriff's Office. Wilder said the teen court program, which uses peer review to decide an offender's punishment, also eliminates his or her arrest record. "That goes away for them."
The FSA's Casey said smaller counties with fewer resources aren't able to do much in the way of youth diversion. "But DJJ can help, and they are helping," he said.
Some say the stakeholders have a tendency to guard their turf, at least at first.
In Miami-Dade, said Martinez, there were "lots of challenges" when civil citations came in, "mainly because it was a brand new thing, mainly because it required law enforcement to give up some of the control over the prosecution of cases.
"You had to get everyone at the table discussing it – and actually, they had to see some successes – before pretty much all the police departments bought into civil citation," he said.
"You've got to have buy-in from law enforcement," agreed Daniels. Civil citations work "very well" in her circuit, she added, because "law enforcement was acclimated to it."
Joe Clark, executive director of the Eckerd Family Foundation, said it takes at least a year for a new jurisdiction to figure out the civil citation system. However, he said, civil citations are working well in jurisdictions with mature programs.
"People are seeing it as a resource," said Casey, "and more and more are availing themselves of it."