Criminal Justice

Sunshine State Sheds Light on New Diversion Program

Nearly 1 out of every 104 Florida residents is currently incarcerated in state jails and prisons. While criminal justice reform continues to be a nationwide discussion, the importance of change at the state and local level is critical to solving the problem. Florida legislators are pushing for reform aimed at reducing the number of individuals entering the criminal justice system and cutting costs that weigh heavily on taxpayers.

In addition to having the third largest number of incarcerated individuals, Florida also has the highest number of juveniles 17 years-old or younger incarcerated in the state prison system of any state in the nation. This has long term negative effects on youth because criminal records stigmatize people and impede their ability to obtain secure jobs. In many of these cases, the delinquent is a first time offender that should have the opportunity to learn from their mistake through a pre-arrest diversion program such as a civil citation. This would reduce recidivism rates by allowing people to get the help they need through mentorship and rehabilitation while offering a productive alternative to jail. This would especially benefit juveniles because young offenders without arrest records have more opportunity for education, employment and civic engagement. However, the potential impact this has on the entire community is immeasurable.

Pre-arrest diversion programs are becoming more prevalent, especially in states that have a high rate of incarceration. Georgia recently introduced a program known as the Pre-Arrest Diversion (PAD) program and Florida legislators are taking fundamental steps to overhaul their criminal justice system with similar programs. In Florida, there are currently pre-arrest diversion measures such as civil citation laws in place that allow for law enforcement officers to use their discretion when deciding whether or not to issue a citation rather than arresting an individual.

The current initiative being considered in the Florida legislature is aimed at making civil citation efforts mandatory for certain crimes. Although this is a strong bipartisan effort, there are opposing views that are concerned about taking discretion away from police officers. Supporters feel that increasing diversion programs through civil citations would ensure offenders are treated equally across geographic boundaries and address any racial disparities in the system. The current system allowed for inconsistent use of civil citations among counties across the state for crimes of the same nature. The provisions were very effective in some counties such as Pinellas and Miami-Dade. Those counties issued citations instead of arrests to over 90 percent of juvenile offenders. However, in Manatee County this number fell to 48 percent of juveniles who qualified received civil citations last year and in Polk County law enforcement officials arrested all 814 juvenile offenders who were qualified for a civil citation last year. This demonstrates that there is still plenty of room for improvement for both juvenile and adult civil citation programs.

In both the State House and Senate, bills are progressing through the process to become law with respect to pre-arrest diversion. Juvenile civil citation is being discussed with HB 205 and CS/SB 196 which would expand the use of civil citations—instead of arrests—for non-violent, common youth misbehavior such as disorderly conduct, petit theft, possession of alcohol by a minor or possession of small amounts of marijuana. Adult civil citation programs are also being addressed in both houses through HB 367 and SB 448. These measures give law enforcement officers discretion to issue civil citations to adults committing certain low-level misdemeanors, allowing them to complete diversionary programs and avoid arrest records.

ALEC adopted model policy in January encouraging local communities to implement pre-arrest diversion programs. Pre-Arrest Diversion represents the idea of issuing civil citations for a specific set of nonviolent misdemeanors and establishing an alternative with explicit requirements that must be met to avoid arrest and subsequent prosecution.


In Depth: Criminal Justice

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