Some Florida law enforcement leaders are hurting efforts to control the spread of the coronavirus, says study

During this era of shutdowns and limited seating capacities, many counties are continuing to arrest children for first-time common youth misbehavior in spite of public health risks

(St. Petersburg, Fla. January 14, 2021) Florida officials in many counties are choosing not to change their practice of arresting children for first-time common youth misbehavior during the pandemic, which forces kids into jail and detention areas that are hot spots for spreading COVID-19, according to the sixth annual study called “Stepping Up: Florida’s Top Prearrest Diversion efforts.”

“If it’s too dangerous for businesses and churches to operate as usual, then it’s too dangerous for children to be arrested for first-time minor offenses and forced into potentially contagious jail areas,” said Dewey Caruthers, president of The Caruthers Institute, a St. Petersburg, Florida-based nonpartisan think tank that conducts the study annually. This edition is supported by the Florida League of Women Voters, Florida PTA and Joseph W. & Terrell S. Clark.

Nationally, public health experts are referring to jail and detention areas as “hot spots” and “petri dishes” for COVID-19, while in Florida the virus is the leading killer of law officers. To combat COVID-19, law enforcement is releasing adults accused of offenses like burglary and cocaine possession. Yet, Florida law enforcement continues to arrest children for lesser offenses like first-time petit theft and marijuana possession, according to the nonpartisan, independent study.

From April through October, there were nearly 2,000 arrests for first-time common youth misbehavior in Florida, according to the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice. This trend continues even though these agencies have the option of issuing juvenile prearrest diversion civil citations instead of making arrests. “Comparatively, the risk for COVID-19 in jail areas is high while there is virtually no risk with prearrest diversion civil citations,” Caruthers said.

Seven counties have particularly high numbers of such arrests during COVID-19: Hillsborough, Orange, Broward, Brevard, Collier, Lee and Escambia.

Separate from issues related to the coronavirus, the study highlights how prearrest diversions are a much better option for public safety, youth and taxpayers. “The data is clear that prearrest diversion civil citations reduce recidivism, improve youth outcomes and save taxpayers money,” Caruthers said.

Additionally, the study revealed that in 2019-20 three Florida circuits – Nine, Thirteen and Twenty – have multiple law enforcement agencies that rank in the state’s top 12 agencies with the most arrests for first-time common youth misbehavior. In Circuit Thirteen, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office led the state for highest number of arrests, and the Tampa Police Department ranked 12th.  In Circuit Nine, the Orange County Sheriff’s Office ranked third, the Osceola Sheriff’s Office fourth, and the Orlando Police Department 11th. In Circuit 20, the Lee County Sheriff’s Office was sixth and Collier County Sheriff’s Office seventh.

“Hillsborough and Orange counties continue in 2019-20 to have the highest numbers of arrests for first-time minor offenses,” Caruthers said, adding the two counties continued arrests of very young children, ages 12 and under, in 2019-20.

Conversely, the study names Pinellas and Miami-Dade counties as the gold standard for using prearrest diversion civil citations as an alternative to arrests for common youth misbehavior. “Florida would be a better place if every county handled common youth misbehavior like Pinellas and Miami-Dade counties.” Caruthers said.

The study includes three recommendations:

  • Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and State Surgeon General Scott Rivkees can help by encouraging law enforcement in seven counties to utilize prearrest diversion juvenile civil citations as the norm, and only make arrests in rare and exceptional circumstances – at least until the pandemic is over.
  • County health departments in seven counties can inform law enforcement decision-making by comparing the public health risks associated with arresting children for first-time common youth misbehavior vs. juvenile civil citations.
  • Florida counties and cities should follow the data supporting juvenile prearrest diversion civil citations, just like they are insisting citizens follow the science with COVID-19.

The Caruthers Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan think-tank that conducts research, crafts solutions and leads advocacy on emerging issues for the purpose of data-driven social change. Based in St. Petersburg, Florida, the Institute believes important policy decisions should be made based upon data – not ideology, partisanship or political influence.


2021-01-14T09:52:54-05:00 Thursday, January 14, 2021|

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