After a year of policy changes designed to decrease rates of juvenile arrests, a report shows Hillsborough County made significant improvements keeping young people out of jail.
Last year, Hillsborough County officials issued a memo that updated the county's policies on adolescent crimes. Instead of automatically arresting kids, county law enforcement officers were able to give out civil citations for a variety of offenses.
The study, which was conducted by The Caruthers Institute, is good news for county law enforcement officials.
"We're excited about the report," State Attorney Andrew Warren said. "It confirms what we already know here, that we're absolutely on the right path with regards to juvenile civil citations."
Warren said that they will look to expand the list of eligible citations. This may seem counter-intuitive, but he said the citations will replace crimes that would normally lead to an arrest.
In Florida, possession of less than 20 grams of marijuana is a criminal misdemeanor that is punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. In the Tampa, however, the same crime can be written up as a civil citation. First-time offenders typically face a $75 fine.
"Rather than arresting them and having that arrest and potential prosecution and conviction hang around their necks for years to come, we're putting them into a position where they get the help they need," Warren said. "They're held accountable without putting them through that traditional process."
The policy aims to prevent adolescents from having to face a criminal record when applying for jobs or college because of bad choices made at an early age.
"This is a great opportunity to give a second chance to good kids who have made a mistake," Warren said. "It holds them accountable, but keeps them out of the criminal justice system."
Though the county showed marked improvement over the past year, Hillsborough fared among the worst in juvenile arrests for one type of crime — domestic violence.
Domestic violence is normally thought of as spousal abuse, but can extend to juveniles harming their family. In Hillsborough County, 184 teenagers were arrested for household violence, but that is only because the county lacked an alternative.
"To issue a citation and then send the offender right back into the household where the incident occurred would be imprudent," Warren said. "The issue with household and domestic violence citations is you need a place where the offender can cool off."
According to Warren, county officials are talking to potential partners who can provide those types of facilities for juveniles.