Legislature should approve juvenile diversion program: A Tampa Bay Times Editorial

Posted January 6, 2018 12:06 p.m. EST

Most Florida counties are failing to provide an alternative means of rehabilitating kids who commit minor crimes that keeps them out of the criminal justice system, where they can acquire a rap sheet that trails them for life. Diversion programs are the answer, and lawmakers who came close to passing a statewide framework last year should complete this important work in the legislative session that begins Tuesday.

Civil diversion programs already are in operation in areas throughout the state. They can include requirements for community service, drug treatment, counseling, restitution or a combination of those things. Though they differ from county to county in the mechanics, they have the common goal of allowing kids to avoid a permanent record for a youthful mistake. This approach has concrete financial benefits: Taxpayers save money by not jailing and prosecuting minor crimes, and the programs are shown to reduce recidivism. And it's just smart policy to try to keep young people on the path to productive lives by not erecting barriers to employment, education and housing.

But not enough kids in Florida are getting that opportunity. A recent study by the Caruthers Institute think tank gave the state an overall F grade for low participation in diversion programs. Hillsborough County's participation rate is 36 percent. Pasco's is 68 percent and Hernando's is 61 percent. One place that consistently does well is Pinellas, where 94 percent of kids caught in minor crimes receive a civil citation.

Legislation sponsored by Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, is modeled on Pinellas County's program and was written in consultation with Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. It would provide for diversion instead of arrest for several misdemeanor offenses and a few nonviolent felonies. Law enforcement officers, though, still would have the discretion to arrest a kid whose actions they feel crossed into criminal conduct. Even then, the names of those juveniles who are arrested would be entered into a system separate from the court records system. If the juveniles are ultimately recommended for a diversion program and complete it, there would be no criminal record that could come up later in a background check. Officer discretion was the final point of disagreement with the Senate last year, so the legislation died. This year, lawmakers should not let that issue stand in the way of enacting needed reform.

Lawmakers are looking at other progressive changes to how the state treats juvenile offenders. They include proposals for sending fewer juveniles to adult prisons; a ban on indicting children younger than 14 as adults; and requiring judges to provide justification for recommending adult punishment for kids. Juvenile justice in Florida needs a thorough reassessment -- including, in some cases, stronger sanctions. The juvenile car theft epidemic in Pinellas County has exposed inadequacies that prevent even the most prolific thieves from being detained.

Diversion programs, where they are put to meaningful use, have proven to be an effective way to correct dangerous behavior in juveniles and deter them from further crimes. But without statewide guidelines, too many kids in too many corners of the state face prosecution. Voters strongly support the use of diversion programs, and for good reason. They save money, and giving kids a second chance gives them an opportunity to become productive adults.

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