A hopeful solution for juvenile offenders
By Maurice Beaulieu, Florida Catholic Media
ORLANDO | When Barbara Cochran’s son, Ronald, was 7 years old, he made a terrible mistake. He and his friends entered a closed school and vandalized it until the police discovered them. The police charged him.
“Ronald was 7 years old, he was arrested with one felony and two misdemeanors,” said the Volusia County mother speaking in a video with F.A.I.T.H. to campaign for civil citations. She went into detail how her son was charged with felony burglary, trespassing, and criminal vandalism, as well as the psychological damage that it has done to him. “At the police station, they wouldn’t let me talk to him, wouldn’t let me see him. He was in there for about three hours.”
On the morning of his court date, Cochran consoled her petrified son before entering the courthouse. His nerves, however, got the best of him and he vomited. “Even (the judge) didn’t think that (the kids) should have been arrested for (their vandalism),” Cochran said. “There was no need to take him like that.” The ramifications to Ronald are not unsurprising. “Ever since, Ronald has been very leery of police officers.”
Speaking via video testimony with F.A.I.T.H., Cochran and many others expressed their concerns with the long-lasting effects a first-time youth offender will experience when encountering a Florida police officer. F.A.I.T.H. stands for Fighting Against Injustice Towards Harmony. The Volusia County organization consists of 30 religious congregations.
Although statistics are improving with most counties throughout the state administering civil citations for minors involved in crimes, many youths still are not getting that opportunity from the arresting officers. The Florida Catholic researched several videos of worried parents, lawyers, Christian ministers, police officers, and spoke with a Catholic priest in the Diocese of Orlando to investigate why more arresting officers in Florida should provide civil citations as a warning for minors.
WHAT ARRESTS MEAN TO CHILDREN
Although Ronald wasn’t sentenced to jail for his crimes, his mother paid a $300 fine afterwards and Ronald was allowed to enter a diversion plan to clean up the school.
Still “he now has a burglary obstructer, trespassing on school grounds, and criminal mischief charges on his record, a record (Ronald) will likely have to explain for the rest of his life,” said Pedro Dash of the Tubman-King Community Church of the boy’s criminal convictions.
During the last five years, over 1,000 kids in the Volusia County area have been arrested, although eligible for civil citations. Nearly 200 of these arrested children were 12 years old or younger.
Hopes and dreams are destroyed for many Floridians, mainly the youth, before they can begin to enjoy their lives because of arrests that could have been deterred in favor of civil citations. As the video testimonials explained, countless times youths under the age of 18 face criminal charges for petty instances, sometimes for unknowingly breaking the law. All too often, the crimes bring these kids along for a journey of police confrontations and dreaded court appearances.
The diversion program throughout Florida offers a second chance at a full life with a clean slate. However, it doesn’t allow the youth offender to walk away unscathed and unlearned from the experience.
“It might include a child or family to make restitution for something stolen or vandalized,” said Father Chris Hoffmann, pastor of Our Lady of the Lakes Parish in Deltona. Father Hoffmann works with F.A.I.T.H. “It might also include a letter of apology for a fight or other offenses. It might require attending an anger management course or drug treatment program to fulfill the stipulations of the civil citation…law enforcement have the option to offer a civil citation for a second or third offense, as well.”
Father Hoffmann explained even though a state attorney may dismiss a youth’s petty charges, the record of the arrest record doesn’t disappear.
“We want to restore the notion that foolish immature behavior needs to be corrected but not through the arrest process. When officers use civil citations rather than arrests there is more dialogue that happens with the child, their parents, the state attorney, and law enforcement about how to not have this happen again,” Father Hoffmann continued. “It is our belief that this will lead to greater respect for law and the criminal justice system.”
A NEED FOR CHANGE
If more people were aware of the various benefits of civil citations crime could plummet, and racial tensions might improve. Father Hoffmann suspects a lack of general understanding of the justice system could be the problem.
“I believe most people have not been arrested so they don’t know how the system works. It is wrongly assumed that civil citations are a slap on the wrist. They are not.”
While adults continue to lead Florida in criminal arrests and convictions, many juveniles are watching their futures stunted for the same reason. An adult getting an arrest record for the first time is much different than a juvenile. The youth will lose out on opportunities they should have had a chance to achieve. The solution—administering civil citations — which many Florida counties now already thankfully use, allow young offenders a well-deserved break. This opportunity to slide without an official misdemeanor arrest (and possible conviction) is a luxury that is ultimately determined by the arresting officer. The fate of a juvenile’s future is left in the hands of the arresting police officer who can give that individual a civil citation.
“When (the fines) can’t be paid or the person doesn’t realize they have had their driver’s license suspended it leads often to arrests that need not happen,” Father Hoffmann added “The Catholic Church has principles of social justice that challenge Catholics to place justice as a priority in moral thinking and acting.”
The longtime priest of the Orlando Diocese, Father Hoffmann sees his role in F.A.I.T.H. as a way to “educate my people on what we are called to do and then lay out the strategy for achieving justice.” He hopes for more change within the Florida legal system.
“When we want to solve a problem in the criminal justice system, we look to who has the power to change things and then find solutions that are possible and then demand the elected officials implement those solutions.”
ELEMENTS OF BIAS
Father Hoffmann and other advocates for juvenile justice have recognized that an element of racial bias exists when applying civil citations. Many root causes for this are the racial tensions minorities have faced with police that have been catalogued for decades.
“Children of color and those with learning disabilities are much more likely to be arrested, be given out of school suspensions, and ultimately drop out of school. … “My belief is that some laws have been written with the desire to confine law breakers,” Father Hoffmann said. “Drugs, theft, and gang activity are areas that legislators have often chosen to address with strict laws and sanctions. While these offenses are not only done by minorities they are also often more harshly enforced than in white communities. We want all communities safe. Yet, we ought not single out people of only minority communities to be arrested.”
“We all know that children make mistakes,” said the Rev. Wendall Webster of Mt. Zion, AME while lecturing at F.A.I.T.H.’s 2021 Action Assembly to a sea of honking supporters watching from their automobiles. “In our community, many of them are arrested for those mistakes. Children as young as 6 years old have been arrested for minor misdemeanors…and finding out years later that they have a criminal record.” He quickly added his answer to this problem, “Our Biblical values teach us about love, redemption, mercy, and giving people a second chance.”
In one video testimony, Zaki Elhajoui discussed receiving a civil citation rather than booked for a misdemeanor. Elhajoui was 17 when he and his friend were caught smoking marijuana.
“I was given a civil citation and processed through Sarasota Teen Court.” As a consequence, he performed community service, but nothing went on his criminal record. “I haven’t had any trouble getting jobs, or getting into school, or finding housing.”
However, Elhajoui’s friend, Brian, wasn’t so lucky. Brian was 18 and was charged with a criminal misdemeanor. “Since then, I know he’s had a little bit of trouble finding apartments that will lease to him. He’s been asked about it a couple of times on job interviews.”
From subpar employment opportunities to resorting to living in squalor areas with limited resources, the likelihood of suffering the infinite effects of having an arrest record increases when a civil citation isn’t first provided.
The Rev. Willie McClendon, pastor of Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church in Pinellas County, relayed a similar situation while speaking with F.A.I.T.H. An autistic member of his church who “when he was 12 years old, hugged someone in his classroom who didn’t want to be hugged,” Rev. McClendon said. “The school resource officer arrested this young man. This young man is now 29 years old and is still worrying about this arrest record. He has worked low wage jobs, like being a dishwasher since most jobs won’t accept him due to his record. It’s ridiculous that one mistake when he was 12 years old is impacting him for the rest of his life.”
NIGHTMARES CAN BECOME REALITY
Speaking in a video testimonial with F.A.I.T.H., Nancy Fripo-Vega detailed how a case of a suspended license turned into a nightmare for her son. He was arrested by the Coast Guard after they discovered his license was suspended when his jet ski ran out of gas. But there is much more to the horrible ordeal.
“He received a speeding ticket in the Port St. Lucie area. He paid a ticket attorney and thought all was good,” Fripo-Vega said. “Unfortunately, the ticket was never taken care of, and his license was suspended. He didn’t receive any correspondence because he had moved.
“So that day, after being rescued, my son was taken to Miami-Dade County jail with nothing but swimming trunks on. Three days later he was taken to the Port St. Lucie jail,” she continued. “My son was not given bail. He spent 17 days in jail, of which one was his 25th birthday. At the hearing, the state attorney wanted to make an example out of him. She wanted to have him serve a year in jail. My son had no previous offenses. And they wanted to deter his life and lock him up for a year for a suspended license.”
Although everything turned out well for her son, she knows that a civil citation could have solved her son’s problem from the beginning. “After paying all court costs and fees, my son was released, and his record expunged. But the trauma of this experience continues to pain my family. As a mother, it breaks my heart that my son and others have to go through this experience, especially when a program like civil citation exists.”
WHAT IS A CIVIL CITATION
While the main focus is the civil citation, it should equally be the lasting effect it has the youth. The civil citation represents so much more than just a “free pass” or a “slap on the wrists” for getting into trouble at a young age. It rightly symbolizes the fact that it teaches the minor that he or she can be held accountable for their actions, and yet, were allowed to go unscathed with an arrest record from an officer in a position who could have treated them far worse. The police officers have the opportunity to show sympathy by reprimanding a youth offender with a civil citation rather than an official arrest. And the youths must recognize that sympathy, learn from it, and as a result, stay out of trouble.
“The way we set the program up was the first opportunity to make the decision to divert somebody would be with the cop on the street,” said Sheriff of Pinellas County Bob Gualtieri in a video testimony. “If the cop on the street didn’t divert the person, then at the jail when that person is brought in on the marijuana possession…the booking person (at the precinct desk) puts them in Lane B.” If the crime the youth has been charged with is an “eligible crime” to forgive, then “the pre-arrest diversion program staff come out and they do a secondary screening of that person. If that person meets the criteria, they have the authority to override under the agreement we have here in Pinellas (county) that all the agencies sign. The staff from the office have the authority to override the arrest decision by the deputy or the officer…then they will put the person in diversion.”
Florida State Attorney Andrew Warren in Hillsborough County hopes more counties across Florida will adopt and use the civil citation policy in the future. “The arrests are made by law enforcement…the key is in the hands of law enforcement. They’re the ones that make the arrests. They’re the ones that are not willing to continue to expand this program. So, we have to continue to keep pushing and encouraging and demanding that we have change to minimize the number of juvenile arrests and increase the utilization rate.”
Robert Aranda of the Aranda Law Firm in Polk County witnessed how the civil citation program works and how it keeps the offender from repeating crime. A young girl was arrested on marijuana charges and had contacted his office to represent her. “One of the best things that occurred was how easy it was to get her in the pre-trial diversion program that the 10th judicial circuit had in place,” Aranda said of the P.E.A.C.E. justice program. P.E.A.C.E. (Polk Ecumenical Action Council for Empowerment), like F.A.I.T.H., is also a faith-based organization who works with its members to identify and resolve community issues. “This was a good kid who made a mistake. She was able to go through that pre-trial diversion program, follow the requirements needed, and now this has not been put on her record and now she is going to college. Had this not gone through pre-trial diversion, I think it would have been a little bit more difficult for her. I’ve seen first-hand how it has helped this particular young person. I thank P.E.A.C.E. for the effort that they’ve done to get that put in place.”
When a juvenile criminal does atone and finds an opportunity to change, he or she already has had their criminal records fed into a countrywide database that will follow them around forever. Thankfully, at press time, Florida legislation is in the process of passing a Juvenile Diversion Program bill aimed to rectify all nonjudicial offenses made by a minor, even a felony offense.
The Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, the lobbying arm for Florida’s bishops, supported the measure, and were glad it was passed both in the Florida House and Senate.
“Expunging records for crimes committed by juveniles requires them to make amends and preserves opportunities for them to enjoy a better future, and opportunities for growth – educationally and professionally,” said Michael Sheedy, executive director of the conference. “It allows a restorative process to take place.”
Pinellas County resident Judy McGinity, a thankful mother, relayed a positive story of how her now grown son benefited from a civil citation. “At age 14, my son was arrested for graffitiing buildings. At that time we were offered a civil citation diversion program, which involved community service, behavior modification classes, and full restitution to the landlord,” she said. “Every Saturday morning that child was out there repainting those buildings. Because of this, my son was never charged with an arrest. This has allowed him to pass Level 2 background checks and private security firm checks that come up and has allowed him to have a completely successful career. I am very grateful that this was offered to him. And I am very happy to report that he has never been in trouble with the law again.”