TAMPA — A program that gives juveniles a second chance after they commit misdemeanor crimes is proving effective in keeping them from offending again.
Hillsborough County’s civil citation program, created in 2009 and expanded two years later, is a way for first-time offenders under 12 to make restitution for misdemeanor offenses without going through the courts. Juvenile justice experts and many law enforcement officers believe civil citation programs prevent children from growing into full-fledged criminals.
That thinking is supported by the first year-after evaluation conducted by the program. Of 723 county children who completed civil citation in 2012, only 86 had another brush with police. In other words, 88 percent of the class did not offend again in the year after graduation, according to figures from the juvenile diversion program in the 13th Judicial District.
Using another yardstick favored by the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, only 1 percent of the children in Hillsborough’s 2012 civil citation class made a court appearance or were found responsible of breaking a law within a year of leaving the program. The average recidivism rate for all Florida civil citation programs is 4 percent. “I certainly think the civil citation program contributed” to the low recidivism rate, said county Commissioner Kevin Beckner, who initiated a task force that recommended expanding the scope of the program.
“There is a potential for children going down the path of the criminal justice system to turn their lives around,” Beckner said. “I’m happy with the results so far. We still have a bit more work to do.”
The stated goals of the civil citation program are threefold: to hold an offending youth accountable for his missteps, to reduce recidivism, and to provide services to the children and their families to keep the kids from getting in trouble again.
But Beckner said the most important benefit of the program is keeping children from getting a criminal record that will follow them for the rest of their lives.
“What a lot of people don’t understand is that once you’re arrested and your fingerprints are sent to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, that doesn’t go away ... when you become an adult,” Beckner said. “That’s been a big barrier to higher education, to good-paying jobs and to entering the military.”
Civil citations can be applied to eight offenses: shoplifting, criminal mischief, trespassing, simple battery, disorderly conduct, fighting, possession of alcohol when the youth is not intoxicated, and disruption of a school function.
Children are referred to the civil citation program by law enforcement, the school system or the state attorney’s office. Specialists then interview the child and the family to see if there are root causes behind the misbehavior, such as alcohol or drug abuse, parental neglect or abuse, or problems managing anger.
Once the evaluation is done, the child must complete a rehabilitation program that includes counseling restitution for the crime.
“It’s very important that the juvenile accept responsibility for the offense,” said Monica Martinez, who works with the court district’s juvenile diversion program.
Martinez told county commissioners Aug. 6 that the program is a boon for taxpayers. The state Department of Juvenile Justice estimates it costs $5,000 to process one juvenile arrest, but for a civil citation the cost drops to $386.
Between June 2011 and 2014, 1,528 children from Hillsborough County entered the program. Using state Department of Juvenile Justice estimates, the state and county saved $9 million dollars by keeping the juvenile offenders out of the courts. That figure refers to police and court administrative costs and does not include any county or state funds spent on service providers.
Lowering the recidivism rate has also affected the number of juveniles arrested, Martinez told the commissioners. According to the latest Department of Juvenile Justice figures, the number of juveniles arrested for first-time misdemeanors decreased by 41 percent between 2010 and 2013.
Commissioners approved Beckner’s request to pay a consultant $17,448 to continue an evaluation of the 18 service providers who work with children in the civil citation program. Beckner said the consultant would develop standard operating procedures and accountability measures for the providers.