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Hillsborough may ease marijuana law for juveniles

Hillsborough County is moving tentatively toward making possession of small amounts of marijuana a civil instead of criminal offense for minors.

The county’s Juvenile Justice Board agreed recently to appoint a subcommittee to study adding misdemeanor pot possession to a list of offenses eligible for civil citations. If all members of the committee agree, a pilot program will begin in public schools in late August.

Though only a partial step, the board’s decision to at least explore including drug offenses in the civil citation program contrasts sharply from the last time the issue came up and was opposed by the sheriff’s and state attorney’s offices.

“Before, there were some people who were opposed to talking about it,” said County Commissioner Kevin Beckner, a member of the juvenile board. “Now, everybody has agreed to sit at the table.”

Circuit Judge Rex Barbas said he will set up a subcommittee that includes representatives from law enforcement, the state attorney’s and public defender’s offices, the judicial system and the school board.

After that smaller committee develops the outlines of a plan, other groups will be invited to comment. Funding will likely come from the Drug Abuse Comprehensive Coordinating Office, a nonprofit organization.

Barbas said the goal is to have the pilot program in place by July. But if any of the primary stakeholders veto the idea, it’s dead. Earlier this month, an assistant told the Tribune that State Attorney Mark Ober is open to making marijuana possession a civil offense — but only if juveniles are evaluated to make sure they don’t have serious drug problems.

Barbas said he also favors expanding the program — if there are mechanisms that ensure juveniles who continue to abuse drugs get help.

“I believe there is room for optimism,” Barbas said. “I think everybody wants whatever’s best for the kids.”

The civil citation program, begun countywide in 2011, allows first-time juvenile offenders to avoid an arrest record by fulfilling program requirements, including intervention and community service.

Hillsborough is the only one of the 59 Florida counties with juvenile civil citation programs that doesn’t allow citations instead of arrests for misdemeanor pot possession.

Expanding the civil citation program to include marijuana was one of several recommendations made to the juvenile board by the Project on Accountable Justice, a Tallahassee-based research institute hired as a consultant to the board.

The report included statewide data that showed that juveniles who were caught with a small amount of pot and referred to civil citation had a re-offense or recidivism rate of just 5 percent within a year.

That’s about the same rate as for other offenses such as assault and battery, loitering and prowling, and trespassing.

Looking at all offenses, recidivism for civil citation participants was 4 percent to 16 percent lower than for court-ordered diversion programs that juveniles are required to complete after an arrest. For drug offenses, 10 percent of juveniles re-offended after undergoing diversion, compared to 5 percent of children who finished a civil citation program.

That doesn’t mean Hillsborough would see the same drop in the recidivism rate. But the success of the county’s civil citation program overall argues for its expansion, author Allison DeFoor wrote. He noted that the recidivism rate for youth who complete Hillsborough’s civil citation program is 1 percent compared to 7 percent for diversion programs.

“There is strong support for similar results,” DeFoor wrote.

Many criminal justice experts see civil citations as an effective way to intervene with misbehaving juveniles in such a way that they don’t re-offend and grow up to be criminals. By accepting responsibility for their misdeeds and undergoing appropriate sanctions, the young people can avoid an arrest record that could hurt their chances for a college scholarship, military service or meaningful employment.

Experts also believe the program is contributing to an overall decline in crime. Juvenile arrests in Florida are down 36 percent since 2009 to the lowest level in 30 years, according to the state Department of Juvenile Justice. The reduction for misdemeanor infractions was even sharper at 41 percent.

All but two years of those statistical declines took place after 2011, the year Florida’s Legislature started requiring communities to offer civil citation to first-time juvenile offenders.

The data supporting the program’s success has proven so strong that lawmakers expanded it during this spring’s legislative session. At the urging of church leaders and other activists, the Legislature agreed to increase the number of civil citations one child can get to three instead of one for a first offense.

Gov. Rick Scott signed the bill into law.

“A kid could do something when he’s 8, 9 or 10, and then when he’s 14 he could do something crazy again,” said James Myles, who works with the truancy intervention program at Bethel Community Baptist Church in St. Petersburg. “The way (the new law) is, a good kid — a kid on his way to a scholarship to college or to a military career or a federal government career — this opens it up to him for more than just one bite of the apple.”

The law that passed was actually a fall-back position for Myles and a loose alliance of activists from 10 Florida counties who lobbied for an expansion of the program. What the group really wanted was for the Legislature to take away the discretion law enforcement officers have to arrest juveniles instead of giving them citations.

Myles said last year, 13,000 juveniles who were eligible for civil citations in Florida were arrested.

“We wanted all kids to be guaranteed civil citations,” Myles said. “What’s happening is in a lot of different counties around the state and certain municipalities, the officers and the communities are not doing civil citations. ... It’s not the individual officers. It’s really the culture of the communities.”

State law enforcement lobbyists opposed giving up its discretion to issue or not issue the citations and that initiative fell by the way. ­Myles said he and the other coalition members will consider trying again in a future session.

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