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|Juveniles in Orange, Osceola can get ticket instead of arrest for minor crimes|
|Tuesday, 01 May 2012 11:01|
By Stephen Hudak for The Orlando Sentinel
The program, designed to punish first-time, nonviolent offenders without saddling them with a criminal record, could result in 1,500 fewer juvenile arrests a year in Orange and Osceola, experts say. It will be supervised by the office of State Attorney Lawson Lamar.
"We know that, for many of these kids, their first brush with the law will be their last," Lamar said.
About 50 other Florida counties, including Lake and Volusia, already use civil citations, which have been hailed by a watchdog group as a potential money- and time-saver for crowded court dockets. Seminole County hopes to have a program by July 1.
Lake has given about 30 civil citations since December to kids for offenses such as fighting in school, smoking marijuana and stealing a cellphone, said Stephanie Glass, coordinator of the county's juvenile diversion programs.
Young offenders in Lake who receive a civil citation must reimburse victims for any financial losses and must perform community service, which has included painting trash bins and working in a thrift store that benefits homeless veterans. Participants also must write a "letter of appreciation" to the officer who directed them to the program.
"Nothing is just forgiven," Glass said.
Lamar said the new program in Orange and Osceola also requires restitution, a letter of apology and 10 hours of community service. Like juveniles who are arrested, those who are issued civil citations must submit to a screening at the Orange County Juvenile Assessment Center, where they can be required to attend anger-management classes or substance-abuse programs, participate in family counseling or work with a mentor.
A police officer has the discretion — with a victim's consent — to issue a civil citation to an offender up to age 18.
Erin DeYoung, juvenile bureau chief for Lamar, will check the citation to ensure that it complies with the program's policy, which does not allow repeat offenders and limits the types of crimes that are eligible. The program will not admit those accused of animal cruelty, sex crimes, offenses involving guns or gang-related crimes.
The State Attorney's Office will manage the paperwork. DeYoung said an earlier version of the program failed because too much of the maintenance burden fell on police. "It is our office's belief that road officers need to be concentrating on responding to calls, not being case managers," she said.
Avoiding an arrest record is increasingly important.
A juvenile arrest, which can pop up on background checks, can hurt a kid's future job prospects, military eligibility and college admission, said Walters, architect of Miami-Dade's program, which is credited with keeping nearly 11,000 teens out of court since 2007. Walters said the program boasts a completion rate of 87 percent and that fewer than 7 percent of participants commit another offense.
A civil citation won't show up on future background checks if the youth completes the program.
Offered a choice by a school deputy, 14-year-old Bry'Annia Williams picked a civil citation over an arrest for fighting with another girl at Carver Middle School in Leesburg two months ago.
Bry'Annia insisted that she was defending herself from a bigger classmate who had hit her first. But she chose the citation even though it meant she could not challenge the misdemeanor charge in court. Juveniles who accept a civil citation must admit to the offense.
"It was a bad decision [to fight]. I want to do better in the future," said Bry'Annia, an "A-B" student who aspires to be a pediatric nurse. "With this, I won't have a criminal background. My mom says that hurts you more in the long run."
The Center for $mart Justice, which studies criminal-justice issues for the watchdog group Florida TaxWatch, concluded last year that issuing civil citations could save taxpayers at least $44 million a year statewide and help cash-strapped authorities focus their limited resources on more-dangerous juveniles.
The center also noted that sanctions from civil citations are imposed swiftly — offenders must finish within a few weeks after signing an agreement to participate. A case referred to juvenile court can drag on for months.
Shay Bilchik, a former prosecutor in Florida who founded the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University, said civil citations and similar diversion programs don't let kids off the hook for misbehavior.
"The underlying premise … is we don't need to kill a fly with a sledgehammer," Bilchik said. "[Diversion programs] force kids to own up to what they did and receive a punishment proportional to their actions while allowing them to avoid negative, long-term, unintended consequences often associated with bringing them into the system. "
First-time juvenile offenders in Orange and Osceola counties will be eligible to receive a civil citation, instead of being arrested, for these offenses:
Fighting at school.
Misdemeanor drug possession.
Petty theft or shoplifting.
Violation of hunting, fishing or boating laws.