Florida law enforcement officials praised for arrest diversion programs

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Florida law enforcement officials were praised Tuesday for implementing programs that offer civil citations instead of arrests for minor and non-violent offenses. Florida’s Direct Action & Research Training Center, or DART, is trying to push for local change where Tallahassee won’t act.

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More than 300 people attended the virtual summit with one goal:

“Here for justice,” they pledged during a roll call.

DART set out on a mission in 2014 to achieve that justice by being smart on crime instead of tough. It pushed for more civil citation usage. Civil citations allow offenders to be held accountable for non-violent crimes and misdemeanors while avoiding criminal records. DART’s members especially focused on civil citations for youth offenses. It found Florida had civil citation programs that weren’t being encouraged. Children were being arrested for minor crimes, like throwing tantrums in classrooms, when they could’ve received a citation.

Facing roadblocks in Tallahassee, Father Chris Hoffman said DART took the fight for justice local.

“Because of our work together, 31,000 fewer children have been arrested since 2014,” Hoffman said. “However, we will not rest until all children are given a second chance.”

DART especially praised Pinellas and Miami-Dade counties for leading the state in youth arrest avoidance programs. In Pinellas, 96 percent of eligible children are given access to citation programs. Miami is close behind with 92 percent.

Other counties are also increasing citation usage. In Hillsborough County, law enforcement officials made civil citations for children mandatory when eligible earlier this month.

But not every city and county has gotten onboard

Over the last seven months, the St. Petersburg Police Department diverted all eligible youth offenders to civil citation programs instead of arrests. And in the last two years, police in St. Pete have only arrested one child. But in Volusia County, 218 children have been arrested over the last two years. Then there’s Pasco County. The sheriff’s office there is under federal investigation for using student data to create a list of potential criminals.

“We need all counties in Florida to adopt broad civil citation programs that include most misdemeanor offenses,” Reverend Bernice Powell Jackson said.

Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren created a civil citation program shortly after taking office. He said expanding such programs is crucial to ending the criminalization of poverty and the school-to-prison pipeline.

“They avoid the arrest and conviction that can make it harder for kids to join the military, go to college or get a job. And civil citations help break the school to prison pipeline,” Warren said. “I’m committed to doing everything I can to keep kids on the right path and away from the downward spiral of the system.”