December 21, 2015. Florida Times-Union.
“Jingle Bells” wafted through The Jacksonville Landing as about three dozen people stood on its front steps and prayed.
“Fill the hearts of our public officials with the fire of your love, and with the desire to ensure justice for our children,” they recited in unison. “May we secure equality for all our brothers and sisters throughout the state.”
ICARE, the Interfaith Coalition for Action, Reconciliation and Empowerment, hosted a vigil for the nearly 12,000 young people who are arrested in Florida each year despite being eligible for a non-arrest diversion program.
Civil citations are alternatives to arrest for juvenile misdemeanor offenders and require youths to go through a restorative justice process instead of delinquency court. Sanctions include community service, counseling, and writing apology letters, essays and book reports.
Civil citations are currently issued at the discretion of the arresting officer and then reviewed by the State Attorney’s Office. ICARE leaders say this has led to disparate outcomes from county to county; what may be issued a citation in one county can leave a juvenile with a criminal record in another.
State Sen. Thad Altman, R-Cape Canaveral, filed Senate Bill 408 in October, which would require officers to issue citations and make them seek approval from a supervisor before arresting juveniles for first-time misdemeanors.
But ICARE leaders are concerned that the House companion may get stalled without the support of a legislator from Jacksonville.
Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, has committed to faith leaders to file a House bill, but it can’t proceed without the support of Rep. Charles McBurney of Jacksonville, also a Republican and the House Judiciary Committee chair. McBurney has thus far not pledged to support the measure as is, and the Jan. 8 deadline is looming.
“We just came to encourage Representative McBurney to join us and partner with us, and to make sure that bill gets filed and moves through the legislative process,” ICARE’s Pastor Tan Moss said after the vigil. He said Trujillo and McBurney have assured the group that they are working on a bill to file before the deadline.
McBurney “has the power right now to make sure that the bill is filed, to sign the bill and to get the bill going through the process before deadline,” Moss said.
Only 43 percent — or 8,961 — of 20,833 eligible youth statewide were given civil citations instead of being arrested in the 2014-15 fiscal year, according to the Department of Juvenile Justice.
In Duval County, 294 of 908 eligible juveniles were cited during that same period. Dade County, by comparison, saw 91 percent of its 1,494 eligible youth receive citations instead of arrests.
Moss said the restorative justice process cultivates empathy in kids and helps them see the impacts of their crimes so that they are less likely to re-offend.
The Tampa Bay Times reported that DART, a coalition of religious groups, also planned a 4 p.m. vigil on Monday, with this one taking place across the street from McBurney’s office in Tallahassee. ICARE leaders said they work with DART, but did not plan the Jacksonville vigil to coincide with the one at McBurney’s office.