January 24, 2015. The Florida Times-Union.
Members of the local faith community say the city’s diversion program for teen offenders is very effective, but that local law enforcement isn’t taking full advantage of the program that allows youths caught committing minor crimes to avoid arrest and criminal punishment.
The Interfaith Coalition for Action, Reconciliation and Empowerment, or ICARE, held a summit Saturday morning at the Arlington Congregational Church about restorative justice for youthful offenders.
Restorative justice emphasizes repairing the harm caused by criminal behavior and embraces alternatives to arrests and incarceration.
The Rev. Tan Moss said “tough on crime” policies that focus solely on punishment are hurting youthful offenders accused of petty crimes, branding them as criminals and failing to address the underlying social problems.
Lawrence Hills, who manages Jacksonville’s teen court, said the diversion program focuses on educating teens about how their crimes affect victims and the entire community. He said it also allows participants to learn about job opportunities and to receive counseling that can help keep them out of trouble.
Hills spoke alongside a recent graduate of the teen court — ICARE asked for the teen to remain anonymous — who entered the program after he was caught stealing a pair of headphones from Wal-Mart.
He said the court required him to perform community service, undergo drug testing and take field trips to introduce him to work opportunities. He said those trips helped him decide to pursue a job as a merchant seaman, and he’s applying to enter an educational program this spring.
Because of the diversion program, the teen will not have a criminal or an arrest record. If he had that record, Hills said he wouldn’t have been eligible for the merchant seaman educational program.
Since the court began in 2012, 108 youthful offenders have entered the program. Hills said 87 percent of the participants have successfully completed it.
“That’s remarkable considering their turbulent family situations,” Hills said.
Despite the program’s success, local law enforcement needs to issue more civil citations, which is an alternative to being arrested and facing criminal prosecution, to eligible youthful offenders, said state Sen. Audrey Gibson.
According to statistics from the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, 26 percent of eligible youths in the 4th Judicial District — which includes Jacksonville — were served with civil citations between March 2013 and February 2014, compared with 86 percent in Miami-Dade County.
Gibson said she’s working to pass a law that would encourage law enforcement agencies to issue civil citations to nonviolent first time offenders, which keeps their records clear and links them to diversion programs.
The proposal would give police officers discretion to issue verbal warnings instead of a civil citation and to issue civil citations to second-time offenders. It would also require police to provide a written report each time they arrest an eligible offender instead of a civil citation to explain why they made their decision.
Gibson encouraged attendees to write lawmakers to support the bill. She urged the community to ask the candidates for sheriff to explain their stance on civil citations.
“We don’t need to find out later on that they don’t support the civil citation process,” Gibson said. “We want to know ahead of time, because the person who doesn’t support it doesn’t need to be elected.”