By Tony Marrero, Tampa Bay Times

TAMPA — Hillsborough County is again expanding its civil citation program for juveniles, a move designed to keep more of them off the path toward incarceration.

The civil citations, given to first-time juvenile offenders in lieu of an arrest, will now be mandatory for all misdemeanors except in “extraordinary” circumstances, according to a Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office news release Monday.

All law enforcement officers in Hillsborough — at the Sheriff’s Office and five police departments — will be required to issue a civil citation “unless they have supervisor approval not to and there is an extraordinary circumstance such as a threat to the community or the safety and welfare of a crime victim,” the news release says.

Previously, using the Juvenile Arrest Avoidance Program was not mandatory and a suspect was ineligible if any of five types of misdemeanors were involved — certain domestic battery charges, assault on a school employee or law enforcement officer, violation of an injunction, driving under the influence and street racing.

“Juvenile justice requires us to balance the needs of a child and our unyielding commitment to public safety,” Sheriff Chad Chronister said in the release. “Our kids, our deputies, our police officers, and our community have made this program a success, so we are able to take these next steps.”

Under the program, children who receive the citations enter a diversion program, which can include community service or restitution. They undergo assessments so authorities can create a program with services tailored to their risks and needs. If they fall short, or are arrested again, the case is referred for possible prosecution.

Monday’s announcement comes about six weeks after activists from the nonprofit Hillsborough Organization for Progress and Equality, or HOPE, called on local leaders to tweak the program and further reduce the number of juvenile arrests in the county.

The group, composed of more than two dozen local churches advocating for social reforms, noted that Hillsborough has made some progress in recent years by expanding the citation program. In recent years, officials reduced the number of ineligible crimes from 13 to five and no longer require a parent or guardian’s permission for a minor to participate.

But HOPE members called for a secondary review process to divert more children to the program before an arrest shows up on their record.

The group cited Department of Juvenile Justice data that showed in 2020, 41 percent of juveniles were issued a citation instead of an arrest for first-time misdemeanors. The activists said a secondary review process helped counties like Pinellas and Miami-Dade increase their citation rate well beyond Hillsborough’s.

A separate study by the Caruthers Insitute in St. Petersburg showed Hillsborough led the state in 2020 with nearly 400 juvenile arrests for first-time minor offenses, an arrest rate of 53 percent. That number was roughly 15 times higher than Miami-Dade County and 50 times more than Pinellas County, according to the study.

Chronister met with representatives from HOPE and told the Tampa Bay Times in March that he was considering options to increase the use of citations over arrests. At the time, Hillsborough Public Defender Julianne Holt said she thought the next step should be to make the program mandatory for all misdemeanors.

Monday’s news release from the Sheriff’s Office includes a statement from Holt, who credited Chronister’s leadership in the expansion.

“While holding our youth accountable for the behavior and actions that could have led to their arrest for a first-time misdemeanor offense, this program also allows our youth to learn that appropriate behavior will enhance their future opportunities,” Holt said.

In previous statements to the Times, Hillsborough State Andrew Warren supported the idea of a secondary review process but stopped short of backing a mandatory program, saying officers still need to have discretion.

In a statement Monday, Warren said, “We’ve all been looking for ways to increase how often civil citations are used for children in low-level cases. We applaud law enforcement for taking this step and hope it minimizes arrests for eligible offenses, which will lead to better outcomes in the long term for kids and our entire community.”

Tampa police Chief Brian Dugan said he thought the program has been working well already but he’ll keep an open mind about the expansion. Dugan said making sure authorities still have discretion in some cases is important to him. In his department, an officer who believes a juvenile should be arrested will need permission from a shift commander.

“I think this (new) setup will make sure there’s no missed opportunities and if there are, it will be documented as to why they’re not in the program,” Dugan said.

The Rev. Bernice Powell Jackson, co-chair of HOPE’s criminal justice committee, welcomed the expansion of the Hillsborough program but would like to see it go even further — noting that counties including Pinellas are requiring the secondary review before deciding on an arrest.

“We know that training of officers will be key to the success and we look forward to seeing the changes,” Jackson said. “Every child in Hillsborough deserves a second chance.”

View the original story here.