By Dewey Caruthers, special to the Times
Kids in Florida are being arrested for common youth misbehavior at high rates throughout the state, but not in Pinellas County, where law enforcement agencies have embraced an effective alternative.
Juvenile civil citations — an alternative to arrest for common youth misbehavior — are utilized in more than 9 of 10 instances in Pinellas County. In fact, Pinellas is one of the trendsetters in the state.
The Caruthers Institute’s third annual study, “Stepping Up: Florida’s Top Juvenile Civil Citation Efforts 2017,” shows juvenile civil citations generate three key benefits to a community: increasing public safety by generating fewer reoffenders than arrests; improving youth outcomes by providing a consequence that does not include an arrest record; and saving taxpayer money because arrests are much more expensive to carry out.
A juvenile civil citation is not a get-out-of-jail-free card. There is a consequence that’s more appropriate and effective than an arrest for common youth misbehavior. And serious crimes like felonies are not eligible.
“Stepping Up” looked at data from 2016, which shows civil citations were used statewide about half of the time for common youth misbehavior, or a rate of 53 percent. Most counties did not make wide use of civil citations, with three-quarters receiving an F grade in Stepping Up’s report card that grades counties, school districts and law enforcement agencies on an A-F scale based on utilization.
The study showed some counties in the Tampa Bay area are making arrests more often than issuing juvenile civil citations — an option that generates more re-offenders, harms youths’ futures and fleeces taxpayers. Among the low performers were Hillsborough (36 percent), Manatee (48 percent) and Polk (0 percent) —all earning F grades. Slightly better performers included Pasco (68 percent) and Hernando (61 percent), which each earned a D grade.
Pinellas County, on the other hand, utilized juvenile civil citations in 94 percent of eligible instances, tied for best in the state with Miami-Dade County, which has been using citations many years longer. Pinellas and Miami-Dade were the only two counties in the state to earn an A grade, and they were among entities studied by the Caruthers Institute to develop statewide research-based best practices, which counties can use as a guide to increase utilization and reduce recidivism.
More specifically, the Pinellas County School District had a 97 percent utilization rate, the highest in the state (A+). Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office had a 90 percent rate (A grade), which is the highest rate of any sheriff’s office in the state. Also fueling the A grade for the county were the St. Petersburg Police Department and the Pinellas Park Police Department, each with a utilization rate of 98 percent (A+). Law enforcement agencies in smaller municipalities — Tarpon Springs, St. Pete Beach, Treasure Island, Kenneth City and Gulfport — each had 100 percent utilization rates.
Too few counties are willing to embrace the civil citation concept, which overwhelmingly shows juvenile civil citations are a more effective approach of handling common youth misbehavior than an arrest. Keeping minor infractions off youths’ arrest records is a good idea, because it means they can more easily further their education and join the workforce. Saving taxpayers money is a no-brainer. And those receiving civil citations are less prone to second offenses and to end up being incarcerated for more serious offenses.
In fact, the Caruthers Institute, as well as the national and state juvenile justice and children’s organizations that support the study, are unable to find any evidence that arrests for common youth misbehavior are a good idea. Yet, there were nearly 9,000 arrests statewide for acts that in days past would have resulted in a trip to the principal’s office or a call to parents. It’s time for that to change, and other Florida counties would be smart to learn from the research-based best practices that includes Pinellas County practices.
Dewey Caruthers, a national expert on civil citations and their effectiveness, authors the annual study Stepping Up: Florida’s Juvenile Civil Citations. He runs a St. Petersburg-based think tank — the Caruthers Institute — that generates data-driven social change through conducting research, crafting solutions and leading advocacy.
Juvenile civil citation rates
Pinellas County 94%
Hillsborough County 36%
Pasco County 68%
Hernando County 61%