Florida legislators work to improve the state’s juvenile justice system

In the face of a national outcry for police reform, Florida lawmakers work to pass a bill designed to keep juveniles out of jail. The Florida Committee on Children, Families and Elder Affairs passed Senate Bill 408 Wednesday after a 3-2 vote.

The bill, which was collectively filed by several senators, requires law enforcement to give juveniles with first-time misdemeanor offenses civil citations rather than arresting them.

Republican Sen. Thad Altman, co-sponsor of the bill, said it is a “major paradigm shift” in how law enforcement views first-time juvenile offenders.

“What we are trying to do is keep kids out of the system,” Sen. Altman, vice chair of Children, Families, and Elder affairs said. “We’re trying to make that first encounter with law enforcement one that is not as negative and ominous as a lifetime arrest record.”

According to the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice’s website, the civil citation program is designed to give law enforcement an alternative that provides swift and appropriate consequences to youth for minor, misdemeanor delinquent acts.

The bill considers acts like possession of alcohol or cannabis, petty theft, disorderly conduct and resistance without violence as “non-serious” violations that shouldn’t ruin a teen’s future.

Although the DOJJ reports that approximately 12,000 citations were issued during the 2014-2015 fiscal year, law enforcement advocates argue that officers should still have a choice regarding arrests.

“This is not about a database, this is about second guessing a law enforcement officer who is on the scene, who makes that decision,” Barney Bishop, CEO and President of Florida Smart Justice Alliance said.

Despite agreeing with the idea of civil citations, those who oppose the bill point toward offenses like battery, possession of a controlled substance and the retail or sale of drugs as very serious acts that should allow officers to make an arrest if they decide it is necessary.

The current law takes discretion away from officers, requiring them to issue documentation detailing why an arrest was made.

“Law enforcement supports civil citations, we think it’s a great idea for probably 90 percent of the kids out there,” Frank Fabrizio, legislative chair for the Florida Police Chiefs Association, said. “The problem is the other 10 percent that we feel we need discretion. Mandating law enforcement to issue civil citations is not a good idea.”

In addition to not being a good idea, Bishop argued that taking discretion away from officers will force them to circumvent policy in order do their jobs with any level of efficiency.

“Law enforcement officers aren’t going to give civil citations. You know why? ‘Cause they’re gonna find something else to charge that person with,” Bishop said. “You know why? Because you’re not letting that officer make a decision anymore. You’re telling that officer what they’re going to do and that’s wrong!”

SB 408 is slated to be heard by the Committee on Rules Feb. 29. If passed, the bill will move on to the floor where the House will decide whether or not it will become law.