This article was published in The Orlando Sentinel on Nov. 30, 2016.
By Gal Tziperman Lotan
Orlando Police Chief John Mina remembers getting into a fight at school when he was young. He got an in-school suspension, he said, and learned not to do it again.
Now, a similar scuffle or other youthful indiscretion can leave minors with arrest records. But if the crime is not severe and the minor takes responsibility, law enforcement officers can write civil citations instead, leaving children and teens without arrest records.
"Our police officers, all of us, we didn't get into law enforcement to arrest kids," Mina said at a news conference presented Wednesday by the League of Women Voters' Orange County chapter, which has been championing the cause of civil citations for about two years.
The number of juvenile arrests in Florida and in Orange County has declined, but Orange County led the state in the number of juvenile arrests made in three of the past four years, beating much more populous counties, according to the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice.
During those years, law enforcement officers in the county also arrested more children between the ages of 5 and 12 than officers in any other county, according to the Ninth Circuit Public Defender's Office.
The DJJ now has a policy that citations should be preferred over arrests for juveniles.
The Orlando Police Department gave citations in 38 percent of eligible cases in the 12-month period that ended in June, a marked increase from 4 percent the year before. The Orange County Sheriff's Office went from 24 percent to 31 percent during the same time period. But the statewide average in the past fiscal year was 51 percent, and in Miami-Dade County, that rate was 94 percent.
"We think our law enforcement officers on the street believe arrests are good and they show discipline to children, and they're a life-changing event," Public Defender Bob Wesley said Wednesday. "Unfortunately, the life-changing event is that a kid who is arrested is more likely to offend [again]."
Orange County has other systems in place to deal with juvenile offenders, such as pretrial diversion programs that let minors avoid criminal convictions after an arrest. But those may not have the same effect.
In the past year, law enforcement departments in Orange County have been trying to give out more citations in place of arrests. Proponents of civil citations argue that when used for first-time offenders of low-level crimes, they lower recidivism, save money and let minors go on with their lives without the burden of a criminal record.
The DJJ said minors who receive citations have only a 5 percent recidivism rate, less than the roughly 9 percent of minors who are arrested and put into pretrial diversion programs.
Officials can only estimate how much money the program would save if used more widely, because cases vary. A minor who goes to trial and is then sent to a detention facility will have a more expensive case than one whose charges are resolved by pretrial diversion.
Dewey Caruthers of the St. Petersburg think tank Caruthers Institute said that by his calculations, giving 100 percent of eligible minors civil citations would have saved Orange County between $1.3 million and $4.1 million from October 2015 to September 2016.
The citations are not issued for major violent felonies, nor are they given for crimes involving gangs. Instead, they are handed to minors caught shoplifting, vandalizing property, drinking a beer or getting into a schoolyard fight with no serious injuries.
Officers have guidelines outlining the circumstances in which they can give citations instead of making arrests. If minors are eligible for a citation, it's up to the arresting officers to decide whether to arrest them.
To get a citation, minors must admit what they did and take responsibility for their actions. The victim of the crime, whether it's a classmate who was shoved or a business owner whose property was stolen, has to agree that a civil citation would be more appropriate than an arrest.
The case then goes to the State Attorney's Office, where prosecutors talk to the minors and their parents about community service and other programs, such as anger management for a child who gets into fights or an alcohol dependency program for a teenager caught drinking. The minors may have to pay restitution or write a letter to apologize.
The Clerk of Courts does not keep a record of the case, and no criminal record will show up in future background checks.
But the kids can still be connected with social services and other resources, said Capt. Ron Chapman of the Orange County Sheriff's Office.
"I've been in this business for several decades now. When I started, it was 'take them home to their mom, leave them.' There was no real follow-up on anything," he said.