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Courts / Law

Community Leaders Call For Police To Stop Arresting Children For Minor Offenses

graph of civil citations in Florida's Circuit 13
Department of Juvenile Justice

Faith leaders from around the state are asking Florida law enforcement to reduce the number of children they arrest, and instead they're encouraging the use of civil citations.

During a virtual meeting Thursday organized by justice ministry network Hillsborough Organization for Progress and Equality (HOPE), speakers talked about how arrests particularly impact children of color.

Rev. Willie McClendon, pastor of Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church in Largo, told the story of an autistic man who's now 29. McClendon said a school resource officer arrested the man when he was 12 because he had hugged someone in class who didn't want to be hugged. Now, he said, the man finds himself unable to find work outside of menial labor because of his police record from childhood. 

Joanne Pierce, a Broward County grandmother, said when her grandson was 14, police stopped him for driving his dirtbike on the road. He was issued 19 civil citations after police surrounded him with a "taser to his neck" and his mother intervened.

Pierce said, "Thanks to the civil citation program, where he had to go twice a week to complete this civil citation program...he is now 18 years old, and he doesn't have anything on his record."

Rev. Jovan Davis of St. John Missionary Baptist Church in Boynton Beach said he believes children deserve a second chance.

"Today we are calling all of our state attorneys, all of our sheriffs, and all of our police to get to 80% or better usage for juvenile civil citations."

Rev. Bernice Powell Jackson is the pastor of First United Church of Tampa.

She said "there is no reason for the statewide usage rate to be less than the best practice of 80%, especially when we know that 95% of the children who get civil citations never get in trouble again."

Tampa's Rev. Bartholomew Banks of St. John Progressive Missionary Baptist Church noted that Hillsborough County only uses the citation option half of the time, while Pinellas has a 99% usage rate. 

Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren said he plans to change that.  

"We need to continue to improve our utilization rate so that every child who is making that first-time mistake has the opportunity for diversion, rather than arrest," Warren said. 

Under state law, juveniles are allowed to participate in pre-arrest diversion up to three times for minor offenses.

State Senator Jeff Brandes of Pinellas County, the author of legislation that mandated civil citation programs for juveniles in every county in 2018, said the form for this pre-trial diversion should be modified.

"To make sure that there's an option for law enforcement, when they do have a juvenile that they're going to place under arrest, that they clearly define the reasons for that, that it's not just a standard "other" column, that they clearly delineate what that means," he said.

Brandes hopes such changes would show the thought process of the arresting officer. And he hopes police supervisors and the Department of Juvenile Justice will review the completed forms to determine if the arrests were appropriate.