FORT LAUDERDALE — A campaign promise by Sheriff Scott Israel has resulted in the Broward Sheriff’s Office invoking a little-known state law that gives a second chance to juveniles with otherwise clean records who get into minor scrapes with the law.
“We have to measure our success by the amount of kids we keep out of jail, not the number we put into jail,” Israel said at a recent event touting the mandatory policy in which deputies must offer the program to youthful offenders who meet its criteria.
While campaigning last year, Israel, a father and assistant high school football coach, frequently expressed concern for youth and the number of children who were being handcuffed and thrown into jail over minor alleged offenses. He vowed to make Florida’s “Civil Citation” statute mandatory policy for all Broward Sheriff’s deputies if he was elected.
“The Civil Citation program is now mandatory, where a deputy has no choice but to offer a juvenile who qualifies an opportunity to enter into the program,” Israel said after taking the oath of office.
The Civil Citation statute allows law enforcement officers the discretion to issue a non-violent, first-time youthful offender a ticket, as opposed to arresting and charging him or her with a crime for misdemeanors such as graffiti writing, shoplifting or trespassing. The children and their parents must agree to participate in the voluntary diversion program which can include community service, counseling, drug treatment and mental health evaluations, depending on the alleged offense.
They must also admit to committing the offense and, in some cases express regret, offer an apology or be required to pay restitution to a victim.
Israel eliminated the option for deputies to offer the program to qualified youths and, instead, revised the agency’s policies to make it a mandatory requirement.
At present, state law has provisions whereby a defendant or a person convicted of a crime can have an incident expunged and their record sealed but must still acknowledge the arrest and/or conviction when asked on an employment application or when questioned under oath. Successful completion of BSO’s Civil Citation program allows a defendant to legally say he or she has never been arrested.
All references to the alleged incidents are wiped from the record because an arrest was never made.
Failure to complete the program results in a formal arrest and criminal charges being filed. Acquiring a criminal record as a child over minor offenses can have profound and lingering consequences, even after he or she reaches adulthood. A criminal record acquired as a juvenile could be an obstacle to the person being hired, serving in the military or being accepted into college.
Sheriff’s deputies arrested 1,039 juveniles so far in 2013. During this same period last year, there were 1,350 arrests, which is about a 23 percent reduction. According to the most recent data, under the mandatory policy Israel has implemented, deputies have issued citations to 196 juveniles, compared to 69 that were issued during all of 2012 under former Sheriff Al Lamberti.
The Broward County Chiefs of Police, the Broward County School District and other agencies are embracing Israel’s policy and implementing their own Civil Citation programs.
Mathes Guice, a minister at Pembroke Park-based Koinonia Worship Center Church, welcomes the change. He has headed several non-profit organizations that assist ex-offenders in gaining life skills and job training.
“To understand to significance of this policy, you have to have an understanding of the big picture. Prisons are big business and some of them are for-profit companies,” said Guice, a retired Broward Sheriff’s Office detective who also serves on the board of the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice. “They are in business to make money and they need a constant flow of people so that their business can remain profitable. Their flow is called the ‘pipeline from school to prison.’
“Unfortunately, children are being prepared to end up in prison and the Civil Citation program slows down that process and, working with providers to administer a system of services that will assist with their development and navigate them into adulthood, could eventually destroy the pipeline from schools to prisons.”
Attorney Levi Williams, who successfully sued the Broward School District over disparities in resources in schools located in minority neighborhoods, agrees.
“The Sheriff’s adoption of the Civil Citation statute as the formal policy of the BSO is innovative and should increase the outcomes of each unit, which can now focus on true criminal/safety matters versus using the punitive nature of the penal code as a disciplinary measure,” Williams told South Florida Times.
“Such a policy will serve to mitigate Florida’s top ranking in direct filing on juveniles by providing an early diversion from the meat grinder of the criminal system and provide an opportunity to make better choices, because a person can change when a future still appears in the horizon,” Williams said.
*Picture above is Sheriff Scott Israel.