TAMPA - As the nation grapples with the legality of medical marijuana and decriminalization of personal pot use, some child welfare experts in Hillsborough County are pushing to make first-time marijuana possession by juveniles a civil, rather than criminal, offense.
These children's advocates say it makes sense to add possession of small amounts of marijuana to an existing list of misdemeanor offenses that can be handled by a civil citation instead of an arrest.
The stakes are major for a child's future. Arrest records can keep young people out of the military, advocates say, or bar them from receiving certain kinds of financial aid for college, such as Pell grants.
The records can also unfairly stigmatize students, especially minorities who are arrested in numbers out of proportion to their population in the school system. The Obama administration recently referred to the outsized number of minority children arrested for misbehaving in school as the "school-to-prison pipeline."
"It's just taking too much away from a kid ... ," said Carolyn Collins, president of the local NAACP, a civil rights organization. "It's enough to ruin a kid's life."
The idea faces stiff resistance from the sheriff's office, the state attorney and some judges who see marijuana possession as a possible indicator of more serious drug use, including abuse of prescription pain killers and cocaine. The only way to know for sure is for the juvenile to get an immediate assessment, which occurs with arrests, but not necessarily from a civil citation, said Circuit Judge Jack Espinosa.
"It's an early detection and treatment issue," said Espinosa, who presided over drug court for many years. "It's not just marijuana that these kids are getting tested positive for when they're taken to the Juvenile Assessment Center. There are opiates and other drugs that are very dangerous."
The county adopted civil citations in 2011 for a list of eight misdemeanor offenses, including shoplifting, fighting, vandalizing property or continually disrupting school events. To be eligible, juveniles must be free of prior arrests and must take responsibility for their wrongdoing.
Their parents must agree to the program's requirements, which can include an apology, restitution and an assessment to see if underlying problems, such as drug abuse, sexual abuse and poor anger management, are causing the bad behavior.
Espinosa maintains that the assessments under a civil citation are not mandatory or immediate.
"If you make them go to a clinical assessment, then under the constitution it's an arrest," Espinosa said. "If they get an opportunity to go on their own time, either they go late or they don't go at all."
Under the county's civil citation law, juveniles can be required to undergo an assessment that includes screening for drugs. If the juvenile doesn't go, the civil citation turns into an arrest and the offender is referred to court. By that time, however, whatever drugs were in his or her system are probably gone.
Douglas Covington, a bureau chief at the state attorney's office, says the county's juvenile drug court is a better way of diverting juvenile drug offenders from incarceration. Kids referred to the court must undergo supervision and, if needed, treatment for drug problems. If they don't, they can be sent to juvenile detention, the "teeth" Covington said civil citations lack.
"The majority of people who go into juvenile drug court and successfully complete the program, the charges are dropped and you have opportunity to get (charges) expunged," Covington said. "The civil citation program has no way to get these people evaluated and get treatment."
Proponents of expanding civil citations to misdemeanor marijuana possession say drug courts have their place, and can be effective. But that doesn't change the fact that a child, as young as a pre-teen, can be burdened with an arrest record for a first-time offense of low magnitude.
Plus, getting records expunged can be a costly proposition and one that poor, minority families are unlikely to undertake, some experts say.
"If you're a family of means and hire a lawyer then you're in pretty good shape," said Joe Clark, former president of the Eckerd Family Foundation. "But if you're an average kid who gets arrested, that arrest record has a lot of ways of coming back to haunt you."
Clark said data from Florida counties that use civil citations show them to be a cost-effective alternative to arrests with the same or better recidivism rates. According to the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, only 4.7 percent of the youngsters issued a civil citation for misdemeanor marijuana possession last year have re-offended, an "incredibly low recidivism rate," a department spokeswoman said.
Espinosa and Covington said the county's drug courts have a 70-90 percent "success rate," meaning that percentage of kids fulfill the court's program successfully. No recidivism data was available Friday.
Miami-Dade County, which has had a civil citation program for juveniles since 2007, includes misdemeanor marijuana possession in the eligible offenses for the citation. Miami-Dade issued 1,443 civil citations last year, 242 for marijuana possession. Only 38 juveniles were arrested on that charge.
By contrast Hillsborough County - with a population 1.3 million smaller than Miami-Dade - had 349 juvenile arrests for marijuana possession during the same period.