JACKSONVILLE – Northeast Florida justice and law enforcement officials signed new landmark sentencing rules last week to expand the list of misdemeanors covered under a sentencing program that …
JACKSONVILLE – Northeast Florida justice and law enforcement officials signed new landmark sentencing rules last week to expand the list of misdemeanors covered under a sentencing program that experts say could lead to a lower recidivism rate among juvenile offenders.
The new rules – long awaited by juvenile justice advocates – expand the use of civil citations for certain juvenile infractions in Clay, Duval and Nassau counties, and gives law enforcement officers the discretion on whether to issue citations for battery.
The Juvenile Civil Citation Program ensures that qualifying offenders – children who have no more than two citations, no felonies on their record and are not a gang affiliate – can dodge jail time through diversion.
Nelson joined regional law enforcement, education and other justice officials’ signatures on a Memorandum of Understanding affirming their commitment to the program’s expansion.
So long as the minor did not possess a firearm and did not commit certain traffic offenses among other exceptions, prosecutors will shuttle the child to a diversionary program without a review of their citation.
Some juveniles can wait in jail for weeks without bond while a judge reviews their case for entry into a diversionary program. This program seeks to streamline that process and save money in the process.
State Attorney Melissa Nelson called the transition a triumph for “smart justice.”
“We know that the data shows that issuing youth an opportunity to take accountability for their actions while staying out of the criminal justice system leads to lower recidivism rates,” Nelson said.
Instead of the traditional court process, children will receive community service hours, counseling or other similar punishments and pay restitutions when required.
In Clay County, these cases will move to the Clay County Teen Court, where their peers can argue over appropriate punishments exclusive of state intervention.
“They understand it was bad behavior, but they don’t always understand it was criminal,” said Deborah Mueller, director of Clay County Teen Court. “I believe in giving kids a second chance and not hurting their record in the future. Once you explain the situation and give them a chance to understand and see things from a different point of view, they’ll understand.”
Advocates have fought for the expanded use of civil citations in the Fourth Judicial Circuit of Florida in part because civil citations do not appear on records, but as a whole, as Florida Department of Juvenile Justice data shows, only four percent of children who received sanctions instead of jail time became repeat offenders.
Because nearly all of these sanctioned children will fall into the teen court program, however, Mueller now has a challenge on her hands – staff and budget. Mueller said the new rule will strain her staff, which now consists of no more than her and a part-time employee, beyond their limits.
She expects her caseload to double over the coming months. There are a number of ways to finance this through state grants, but Mueller said she is confident the change is for the better.
Department of Juvenile Justice data from 2016 showed 60 of Florida’s 67 counties have instituted some sort of civil citation program.
While state law provides for the use of civil citations for certain offenses, it gives state attorneys broad discretion to enact sentencing guidelines as they see fit.
Former State Attorney Angela Corey chose to bar law enforcement officers from issuing civil citations in the case of battery, a move that drew wide criticism from advocacy groups.
Nelson distanced herself from Corey’s stance early on in her run for state attorney, saying that juvenile sentences should be “tough but fair.”
“The civil citation has historically been a source of contention in this circuit for large part because the state attorney’s office was opposed to the things that we accomplished today,” Nelson said. “Law enforcement officers wanted this, and they have for a long time…if you can have an alternative to the court system, it’s a great thing.”
Last year, the DJJ reported Clay County issued citations to eligible youth about 29 percent of the time, a statistic which is mirrored in Duval County. Experts expect that number to rise over the coming months.
“I think in the future I look forward to teen court being exposed to more people,” Mueller said. “I think it’s the best kept secret of every county… and I’m excited my caseload may double, it’s a wonderful problem to have.”
The goal overall is to end the school to prison pipeline, which is backed by statistics that show once a teen is incarcerated, their chances of future incarcerations increase. By issuing civil citations, teens are given a chance to stay out of jail, clean up their records and move on to a better life.