TALLAHASSEE, FL (WTXL) -- The use of civil citations to divert juvenile offenders from the justice system has spread to nearly all Florida counties. A new law goes into effect Oct .1, giving teens who are apprehended by law enforcement second or third chances to avoid arrest. And supporters want the state to spend $2 million next year to expand the programs.
But while most law-enforcement agencies have grown to respect civil citations, they have their own ideas about how to make the programs work.
"To me, it's all about making the good decision," Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said. "It's less important the number of civil citations a kid gets --- it's the circumstances surrounding it."
That's why --- although Gualtieri supports civil citations, and Pinellas has had them for 10 years --- he's cautious about expanding their use.
The use of civil citations has grown quickly in Florida over the past four years, going from seven to 60 of the state's 67 counties. The citations offer the option of diverting young offenders into mandatory community service for some offenses, such as getting in fights or smoking pot. Offenders are also required to write letters of apology to their victims and assessed to see if they're likely to re-offend.
For some children's advocates, though, a newly passed law (SB 378) granting more than one civil citation per offender didn't go far enough. For instance, Father Chris Hoffman, a Catholic priest in Daytona Beach, had pushed for the law to include the so-called "shall provision," which would have required officers to issue civil citations for certain offenses. It was dropped from the bill, however.
"That would be ideal," Hoffman said. "But at this point there's a lot of resistance to it."
Much of the resistance comes from the Florida Sheriffs Association and the state Department of Juvenile Justice, which agree that law-enforcement officers should have full discretion to decide whether to make arrests or issue civil citations.
"They know these kids," Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Christy Daly said.
The department and the sheriffs also want decisions to be made based on all the data, including the nature of the offenses and any previous offenses.
"Another barrier to complete, widespread, full implementation all the time --- which is not appropriate --- is the law," Gualtieri said, pointing to a pro-arrest policy in state law dealing with domestic violence. "There's a problem there. You get 15-year-old Joey, who's not so small, who smacks Mom in the face. …What are you going to do, leave Joey there at the house with Mom and give him a civil citation?"
That's why the department and the sheriffs association are exploring ways to increase officers' access to the most current data --- so that a deputy at the side of the road can find out if a youth has already received a civil citation in another county and what type of incident caused the citation.
"Right now the cops on the street don't have access to any information that'll help them make a good decision about whether to charge the kid, arrest the kid or divert the kid," Gualtieri said.
Meanwhile, Daly said her agency is "looking internally" to see how its system can be tweaked to meet the needs of law enforcement.
"I do feel very strongly, though, that anything that we do needs to be a single database," she added. "We need to be able to incorporate, make changes to our system so we don't have competing data systems in the state. It also allows us to ensure that what's in there is kept confidential, and we can work with law enforcement to ensure that their needs are met through that system."
That's likely to require some negotiations with the sheriffs, who are interested in using one of their own systems. Matt Dunagan, deputy director of the Florida Sheriffs Association, said the group hopes to bring the Department of Juvenile Justice, local law enforcement and providers of juvenile-justice programs together "and see if we can't work this out so we can have this information shared across county lines in a timely fashion."
Daly also said that while she backs the new law allowing second and third civil citations, the answer to expanding the programs is local control.
"I think what gets us there is working with local communities to ensure that there is a quality protocol process in place … a process that everyone is comfortable with," she said. "I think the more comfort that all of the stakeholders can feel with civil citation is when civil citation is utilized to the best of its ability."
Last month, a number of advocacy groups released a study that found a 25 percent increase in the use of civil citations would save taxpayers as much as $61 million. Touting the study, the Children's Campaign, the Center for Accountable Justice at Florida State University, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the James Madison Institute urged lawmakers to invest $2 million to expand the programs through officer training, a statewide information network and seed money for poorer counties.
But Roy Miller of the Children's Campaign said his coalition hasn't taken a position on the "shall provision.
"We just think it would be very divisive," he said. "And we're trying to focus on the other side of the coin: keeping the records confidential and expunging them at an earlier age."