Church group pushes for change in Fort Myers

October 16, 2017. Fox4.

FORT MYERS, Fla. – Hundreds of people gathered at Mount Hermon Ministries Church in Fort Myers on Monday evening to help make their neighborhoods a better place.

“The beautiful thing about our organization is as you look around, you are going to see different races, creeds,” said Dr. William Glover, the reverend at Mt. Hermon Ministries. “The thing that unites us is the core justice of fairness and everyone benefits from that,” he added.

The Lee Interfaith for Empowerment (L.I.F.E.) works together with 38 congregations, then vote on a cause in order to make Fort Myers a better place to live.

Hundreds gather to call for action on Fort Myers unsolved murder cases

March 28, 2017. Fox4Now.com

FORT MYERS, FL – Close to 800 people gathered at a Fort Myers Church to call for immediate action from city leaders to resolve over a 100 unsolved murder cases.

Lee Interfaith for Empowerment or LIFE, a faith-based organization which aims to find remedies to social injustices, hosted the event at the St. Columbkille Catholic Church in Fort Myers Tuesday.

Community reacts to FMPD’s call for federal help

March 10, 2017. NBC2.com

FORT MYERS, FL – Community leaders are feeling a sense of vindication after they requested Chief Derrick Diggs seek outside help to investigate the police department — and he went to the feds for that help.

Diggs is asking the Department of Justice to launch the investigation just days after a city council meeting where dozens lodged their complaints about the Freeh Group’s audit of the department.

Civil citations keep kids out of jail in SW Florida

May 18, 2015. News-press.com

Jesus Ramos, a detective with the Fort Myers Police Department, says civil citations, when appropriate, give juvenile offenders a second chance.

Civil citation, a program designed to keep kids out of jail and preserve their opportunities for a successful future, is winning over Southwest Florida’s law enforcement agencies.

Instead of arresting young people for relatively minor crimes like vandalism, trespassing and shoplifting, officers are sending them to the diversion program, where they do community service, make restitution and receive counseling for any problems they may be facing.

The primary benefit for the juvenile who successfully completes civil citation – the lack of an arrest record – is also good for the community. Statistics show first-time juvenile offenders who receive civil citation are much less likely to re-offend and the cost to taxpayers is nearly 13 times less than that of an arrest.

Board keeps juveniles from reoffending and out of court

In the first eight months of the 2014-15 fiscal year, July through February, Lee County referred 169 juveniles to civil citation, surpassing its total of 141 from 2013-14. Collier County, which has sent 158 kids to the program during the same time period, has consistently used civil citation at a rate exceeding the state average. Collier is one of only 13 Florida counties that has referred more than 50 percent of eligible juveniles to civil citation.

Lee County’s surge began shortly after more than 1,000 community members attended an action assembly in April 2014. The event, organized by Lee Interfaith for Empowerment, or LIFE, urged Lee County law officers to make better use of civil citations. It got another boost in January when the Cape Coral Police Department officially came on board, issuing its first civil citations. In the first two months of 2015, Cape Coral has referred 12 out of 36 eligible juveniles to the program.

“We’re very pleased with the way they have responded,” said LIFE Vice President Rev. William Glover, of Mount Hermon Ministries in Fort Myers. “The fact that we have the three major law enforcement agencies now involved will make a big difference in the lives of a lot of juveniles who simply made some bad decisions and now those decisions won’t hinder them in adult life.”

During the recently completed Florida legislative session, the Senate expanded the state’s civil citation program, allowing a juvenile offender to receive up to three citations and giving law enforcement officials the ability to issue a warning or simply inform a juvenile’s parents of their child’s actions. The new guidelines will go into effect Oct. 1.

Police point of view

Detective Jesus Ramos didn’t pursue a career in law enforcement because he wanted to work with kids, but that’s where he ended up. A seven-year veteran of the Fort Myers Police Department’s Juvenile Arrest & Monitor unit, he spent many hours meeting and policing the city’s younger population.

Ramos, whose case load includes crimes like graffiti, shoplifting and gang investigations, supports the provision that a program participant must confess to their crimes.

“I believe that for any of us to correct whatever it is that we are doing wrong, one of the first things we need to do is to acknowledge that we did do something wrong,” he said.

The civil citation program is as important to the child as it is for the law enforcement agency, Ramos said.

“This shows that law enforcement wants to work with the community to find solutions that can increase the chances of correcting the behavior while strengthening the relationship among us all,” he said. “If you have a positive interaction with a law enforcement officer then the possibility is that more positivity will come out of that.”

Fort Myers’ use of civil citations for first-time juvenile offenders was at 61.4 percent in 2014-15 through February, the highest in the county.

Officers who work with young people make an impact on them, but the impact goes both ways.

“These guys can rattle off names of kids they supervise,” said. Lt. Victor Medico, spokesman for the police department, who also spent some time supervising the juvenile unit.

While the civil citation program was first introduced by Florida statute in 1991, it wasn’t until 2011 that the state mandated every county implement it. Since then, the Fort Myers Police Department has referred 282 juveniles to civil citation, more than any other county law enforcement agency.

Civil citation’s primary benefit for juveniles is that unlike other diversion programs the offender is never arrested. A juvenile misdemeanor arrest, even one that is eventually expunged, can cause complications for those seeking college scholarships, job opportunities or to join the military.

Board keeps juveniles from reoffending and out of court

“If you’re looking at two kids, one who has a clean record and one who doesn’t, it’s not hard to figure out who’s going to come out on top,” said Rev. John Adler, a civil citation advocate. Adler, who retired from Iona-Hope Episcopal Church last July, testified about the program’s merits before state lawmakers this spring as part of a coalition of religious leaders from 10 Florida counties. “They can talk about expunction and sealing records all they want but in this day and age, it’s virtually impossible to remove an arrest entirely.”

Due to the anonymity offered by civil citation, The News-Press was unable to speak to any juveniles or their parents about the program.

Statistically, kids who receive a civil citation rather than an arrest for a first-time misdemeanor are also much less likely to re-offend. According to the Department of Juvenile Justice, those arrests produce a recidivism rate of 13 percent compared to just 4 percent for civil citation. That rate is even lower among Lee (1 percent) and Collier (3 percent) county law enforcement agencies.

“Once kids get booked and into the system, that experience can produce a sense of hopelessness,” said Fort Myers defense attorney Peter Dennis. “That’s the last thing we need is our children feeling hopeless about the situation they’ve gotten themselves into and that it doesn’t matter anymore because they already have a record.

“If you can target whatever the issue is and hold them accountable with civil citation and not make them feel like a criminal by having them arrested, I fail to see the downside in that.”

Accountability

Civil citation prompts juveniles to confront their wrongful actions head-on in a manner that an arrest may not. The statute permits law enforcement to mandate a juvenile complete up to 50 hours of community service, make financial restitution, write a letter of apology and receive intervention services such as drug testing and counseling in order to successfully complete the program.

“With civil citation, an individual learns what accountability is, what restitution is,” Glover said. “They have to make amends so they become sensitized to the human element, that they actually hurt somebody, and that realization is very valuable.

“The civil citation process helps make that connection. If that connection is never made and there is no remorse or, to use a religious term, no repentance, you’re not going to be able to change their attitude or their behavior.”

In Lee County, while Fort Myers and Cape Coral officers issue civil citations at their discretion, the sheriff’s office operations manual mandates civil citations for the following misdemeanors: theft (value less than $300), criminal mischief (damage less than $1,000), trespassing, disorderly conduct, disruption of a school function and simple possession of alcohol (individual is not intoxicated). If a deputy believes a juvenile should not receive civil citation in one of the above instances, permission must be granted from a supervisor not to issue one.

This policy is at least partly responsible for the surge in the number of civil citations written by the sheriff’s office. After issuing 103 from 2012-14, deputies have already issued 106 in 2014-15.

If the juvenile fails to complete the program, the case is turned over to the state attorney’s office, which could decide to prosecute the original offense.

“Civil citation is not a slap on the hand,” said Theda Roberts, the Department of Juvenile Justice’s civil citation coordinator. “If these kids choose to not take advantage of the opportunity, then the original arrest paperwork goes through as if the civil citation never took place.”

That’s not the most cost effective solution for the court system, however. The Department of Juvenile Justice estimates every juvenile arrest costs $5,000 to process while civil citation costs $386. Based on those figures, the 169 civil citations Lee County has issued in 2014-15 have saved nearly $780,000.

“When you think about the costs of prosecuting these cases, civil citation makes a lot of sense,” Dennis said. “Judges and prosecutors are so busy already. Why clog up the system more with these minor offenses?”

Corporal “rock star”

Patricia Holt receives a surprising reception when she walks down the halls of Collier County high schools.

“I get treated like a rock star,” said Holt, a corporal with the Collier Sheriff’s Office and its civil citation coordinator for the past eight years. “You would think they’d want to stay as far away from me as possible because I’m the person that made them do all those things they didn’t want to. But they don’t, and that’s the coolest part.”

Unlike Lee County, Collier has exceeded the state’s average for using civil citation in three of the past four years. In 2014-2015, the county’s usage rate was 52.1 percent through February.

Holt said Collier’s deputies prefer putting kids in civil citation instead of taking them to jail because they know how rigorous the program is.

“The deputies love it so much because we hold them accountable,” she said. “If a kid comes in with a drug charge, that’s a mandatory 40 hours (community service) and random drug testing. If we see they have an anger problem, we get them counseling. If they don’t do what they’re supposed to do, we add on (community service) hours. They learn very quickly that there’s consequences when you come to civil citation.

“The goal is for us to never see them again.”

Despite its demonstrated success, nine Florida counties – Bradford, Calhoun, Dixie, Gulf, Hardee, Polk, Sarasota, Taylor and Washington – have yet to implement civil citation. And 21 others have utilized the program in less than 15 percent of eligible cases so far in 2014-15.

That’s something Adler and other civil citation advocates hoped the Florida Legislature would help change. While lawmakers did agree to expand the program, language that would have made it mandatory for law enforcement officials to issue civil citations to juveniles found committing qualifying misdemeanors was ultimately stricken from the bill.

“Legislation is a funny business,” Adler said. “My experience is you don’t get everything you ask for the first time around. We got a little bit this year and that’s a good thing. We’ll come back and ask for more.”

Dennis said the expansion of the program is an important step toward preventing what everyone should dread – juvenile offenders turning into adult criminals.

“Everybody’s goal, even a defense attorney’s, is to have fewer kids getting in trouble,” Dennis said. “If you can show them they are still valuable and deserve a second chance, if you can raise their self-esteem, you have a lot better chance at having an adult criminal population that doesn’t include a lot of these kids.”

Staff writer Melissa Montoya contributed to this report.

What is Civil Citation?

A diversion program that acts as an alternative to arrest for juveniles who commit misdemeanors. Offenders make restitution, issue an apology, receive intervention services and complete community service.

Non-violent misdemeanors that qualify for civil citation are theft (less than $300), trespassing, disorderly conduct, disruption of a school function, simple possession of alcohol, possession of marijuana (under 20 grams), possession of paraphernalia, simple battery (not domestic), simple assault (not domestic).

The Department of Juvenile Justice estimates every juvenile arrest costs $5,000 to process while civil citation costs just $386.

Nine Florida counties – Bradford, Calhoun, Dixie, Gulf, Hardee, Polk, Sarasota, Taylor and Washington – have yet to implement civil citation. And 21 others have utilized the program in less than 15 percent of eligible cases so far in 2014-15.