Published on December 8, 2017
Two years ago the Orange County League of Women Voters launched a commendable campaign to promote civil citations as an alternative for police to arresting kids who commit minor criminal offenses. Updated totals for Orange and Osceola counties, highlighted in a news conference this week, show the campaign is making progress — but has farther to go.
The share of civil citations for first-time misdemeanor offenders in the 9th Judicial Circuit, which covers Orange and Osceola counties, more than doubled from 18 percent in the 2014-15 budget year to 43 percent in the 2016-17 budget year, according to the state Department of Juvenile Justice. Even so, law-enforcement agencies in the two counties still chose to arrest more than 800 kids last year who could have been issued civil citations instead.
Civil citations don’t spare juvenile offenders from accountability for their actions. Sanctions for these offenders may include paying restitution to their victims, performing community service and completing courses in impulse and anger management. And civil citations aren’t available for youth who commit felonies or sex offenses, or crimes involving weapons or gangs.
Arresting youth for minor nonviolent offenses such as shoplifting or underage drinking brands them with a criminal record. That can damage their future prospects to qualify for academic scholarships, or obtain loans, or get hired for jobs that would help them become productive, taxpaying members of their communities.
There’s another, more immediate and practical argument in favor of civil citations. Processing juveniles through the criminal-justice system after an arrest is more labor-intensive and costly for police than dealing with them through a civil citation. Arresting kids who don’t pose a threat to public safety needlessly ties up limited law-enforcement resources that would be better directed toward catching and confining dangerous criminals.
A recent report issued by the Caruthers Institute, a nonprofit, independent think tank based in St. Petersburg, estimated that Orange County taxpayers could have saved from $1.5 million to $4.8 million in 2016 if the county had issued civil citations in 75 percent of eligible cases. Osceola taxpayers could have saved from $380,000 to $1.2 million by meeting the same standard. If 75 percent seems like an unrealistically high target, consider that both Miami-Dade and Pinellas counties issued civil citations last year in 94 percent of eligible cases.
Perhaps most important of all, there’s a strong public-safety rationale for law-enforcement agencies to choose civil citations over arrests for juveniles who commit minor offenses. While some might insist that handcuffing, fingerprinting and jailing are all part of a process of scaring kids straight, statistics show youthful offenders who are issued citations are about half as likely to re-offend as those who are arrested.
Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings and Orlando Police Chief John Mina appeared at this week’s news conference; to their credit, both their agencies have increased their use of civil citations. However, both agencies still lag behind the state average. In fact, Orange County led Florida in juvenile arrests three of the past four years.
So a call from the chief judge for the Orange-Osceola circuit, Frederick Lauten, makes good sense. He’s proposing a summit of area law-enforcement agencies in February to increase the use of civil citations. Lauten said participants would discuss best practices and improvements on their civil-citation policies.
We urge all agencies in the two counties to take part enthusiastically. The numbers show civil citations are better for young people, better for taxpayers and better for public safety.