October 25, 2016. The Tampa Bay Times.

When she was caught stealing an $8 necklace as a 12-year-old, Samantha Hernandez said she was tackled to the ground and arrested, yet told the crime would be cleared from her record by the time she was 18.

That wasn’t the case.

“I’m now 25, and that arrest from 13 years ago still comes up when I apply for jobs, college and housing,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez told her story in front of a lively congregation at Hope Family Catholic Church in St. Petersburg on Monday night, in an effort to help prevent other children who commit minor first-time crimes from sharing her experience.

At the 13th annual assembly of Faith and Action for Strength Together (FAST), a coalition of churches called on candidates running for the Florida Legislature to back a bill that would expand access to the state’s juvenile citation program. If passed, it would prevent kids from having a criminal record for minor offenses.

The coalition of about 40 churches pushes to hold elected officials accountable on issues in Pinellas County ranging from poverty and education to housing affordability.

Each year, the group says thousands of kids in the state are charged with crimes when they could have been given a citation and placed in a program to change their behavior. Instead, the arrest stays on their record, following them well into their adult lives.

“It brands them for life,” said Willie McClendon, pastor of Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church in Largo. “They can’t get jobs, a lot of them can’t get into the military, can’t get scholarships, what have you.”

The legislation FAST wants to enact would name 11 misdemeanor offenses — including underage drinking, disorderly conduct and marijuana possession — for which someone younger than 18 would receive a civil citation for a first-time offense, instead of an arrest. The group had six candidates for state office, both Republicans and Democrats, show up to their assembly in St. Petersburg, all of whom said they would co-sponsor the bill if elected.

In Temple Terrace, hundreds gathered at a similar assembly at Corpus Christi Catholic Church, urging the legislation to be filed in next year’s session.

“I’m optimistic we’ll be able to have a successful piece of legislation that will help lots of kids in the state of Florida,” said Rep. Ross Spano, R-Dover, who agreed to help file the bill if reelected.

State law currently allows for local law enforcement agencies to have discretion in whether or not they issue a citation or use another tactic to avoid arresting children. Whether a kid will be granted a citation depends largely on where they live in the state.

James Myles of the Bethel Community Baptist Church in St. Petersburg said opponents to the proposed legislation often say they want law enforcement to have discretion. For Myles and the members of FAST, it puts too many kids at risk of having permanent stains on their records.

“We don’t think that’s an equal trade-off,” Myles said. “We think the lives and the future of our young people is important to their future and the future of our state.”

FAST touts the benefits of citations or other diversionary programs as reasons more kids should have access to the option.

Hernandez, who told the story of her arrest as a child, has a younger sister who she said was caught shoplifting last year. Instead of being arrested, however, Hernandez said her sister was issued a citation. Through a series of programs, including community service and classes on anger management and peer pressure, Hernandez said her sister has turned her life around without the criminal record. She wants the same for other kids in the state.

“These kids are our future,” Hernandez said. “We don’t want to lock them up. We want to help them.”

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