A recent report says 45,366 juvenile arrests were made in Florida during fiscal year 2019-20, marking a 45-year low across the state. The drop is attributed to COVID-19 and school closures.
According to this year’s “Delinquency Profile” from the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, Hillsborough arrests were also lower than recent years.
Still, Hillsborough County once again led the state in 2019-20 with 3,448 juvenile arrests. Hillsborough also led the state’s juvenile arrest numbers in 2018-19 (4,369) and 2017-18 (4,862).
“With COVID-19 related shutdowns and school closings throughout the state, the number of arrests during FY 2019-20 was abnormally low,” the Delinquency Profile wrote.
The arrests in Hillsborough were driven by the sheriff’s office, which came in first in the state for juvenile arrests, while Tampa Police Department came in fourth.
“It is shocking to me,” Michelle D. Lambo, criminal and traffic defense attorney, told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay. “It surprises me because I know there are a lot of diversion programs, and it’s also surprising because beginning in March, the world shut down.”
Lambo said that policies on certain types of crimes need to be reviewed. For example, assault and battery (which includes domestic violence) were up this year, but there could be scenarios where charges might be avoided.
“If you have two brothers or two friends fighting and a neighbor calls the police or mom calls the police because she’s freaking out, why should anyone go to jail?,” Lambo asked. “Technically yes, that's domestic violence or battery, but why would you ruin someone’s life over it?”
TPD Public Information Officer Eddy Durkin told CL that “it is encouraging to see a decrease in juvenile arrests across the board,” but could not speculate on statewide comparison of individual data. Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister sent CL an email about the arrest numbers.
"Hillsborough is one of the most populated counties in the state of Florida, and despite the ever-growing increase in our youth population, we have seen a decrease by more than 20% in the last year, 44% over the last five years, in the number of youth arrested, according to the data you provided,” he wrote.
Citing census data, florida-demographics.com says Hillsborough (pop. 1,471,968) is the fourth most populated county in the state; Pinellas (pop. 974,996) is sixth. By comparison, Florida’s most populated county, Miami-Dade (pop. 2,716,940) saw just 2,184 arrests in 2019-20.
Chronister went on to say that in September of this year, HCSO expanded its Juvenile Arrest Avoidance Program (JAAP). Instead of an arrest, all but five offenses now qualify for civil citations, counseling, drug treatment, and other alternative sanctions. Last year, Hillsborough County deferred 1,059 juveniles to diversion programs. HCSO also supported the County Commission's decision to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana, added Chronister.
“We collaborated with our court system to launch Hillsborough County's juvenile mental health court,” he wrote. “And furthermore, we have deputies assigned to the Boys and Girls Clubs of Tampa Bay who serve as mentors to youth within those facilities. We are encouraged by the progress we have made in our community, and we believe these steps will continue to contribute to the now 45-year low in juvenile arrests across the state of Florida.”
The Restorative Justice Coalition is an activist group with a mission to, “create a just system that impacts victims, society and those who offend in a positive, restorative manner.” Its co-founder, Angel D’Angelo, told CL that he and his group are disappointed, but not surprised at the findings.
“It would be nice for Hillsborough to be number one in something positive,” D’Angelo said. “We know our communities want their needs met, food, shelter, water, and accessible activities regardless of race, ethnicity, income level or disability. Instead, our county is once again prioritizing handcuffs and jails, which have not been proven to improve communities at all.”
D’Angelo went on to say that these arrests can put a huge strain on the families involved. He said that even when using a public defender, there’s a high cost to being charged with a crime. Parents also likely have to miss work to deal with court hearings. During a massive economic depression and a pandemic with no end in sight, these costs of juvenile charges can damage families deeply.
If the arrest leads to a criminal record for the young person, it can follow them into adulthood and affect their ability to maintain steady employment.
“We know the negative effects that arrests can have on children as they move forward in life, including hindering their ability to get a job, into college, or the military,” State Attorney Andrew Warren’s office wrote in an email to CL. “That’s why we’ve done so much over the past four years to increase the use of civil citations and reduce juvenile arrests to create the best outcomes for our kids and community. We recognize there is more work to do, and we will continue working with law enforcement to minimize juvenile arrests and expand programs that get kids back on the right path.”
Data from the Direct Action Research Training Center (DART) says that Florida has been one of the leaders in the U.S. in arresting children for years. To address this issue, the Florida Legislature implemented a Juvenile Civil Citation program, which prioritizes citations over arrests. Warren has been a champion of the citation program.
But in an interview with ABC Action News in July, Warren said that only half of eligible kids in Hillsborough are given citations, rather than arrests.
To address this problem, in September, the State Attorney’s office worked with its partners to expand the Juvenile Civil Citation program. Now, with the exception of five, all misdemeanor offenses are eligible for a civil citation. The five exceptions are: Assault on a Specified Official (school employee, detention officer, law enforcement officer), Battery (Domestic Violence, except incidents involving Family Violence), Driving Under the Influence, Racing, and Violation of Injunction.
Parental consent is no longer mandatory for a juvenile to qualify for the civil citation program. When an officer is considering arresting a child under 12, they must consult with a supervisor to discuss other options, with preference given to a civil citation. Warren’s office said that these changes should hopefully result in more Juvenile Civil Citations and fewer arrests going forward.
Even citations, though, can be a financial burden for families during an economic scenario where food bank lines stretch for miles in Florida and across the country.
“I imagine, since Hillsborough’s arrests are the highest, that there are many families struggling with the financial burden of citations as well,” said D’Angelo.
According to the Juvenile Law Center (JLC), the high cost of fines and fees in the juvenile justice system can lead to what they call a “debtor’s prison for kids.” The JLC report says that citations, much like arrests, can bring children and families deeper into the carceral system.
“Across the country, youth and their families, including many in poverty, face monetary charges for a young person’s involvement in the juvenile justice system,” the report reads. “Too often, the inability to pay pushes the young person deeper into the juvenile justice system and exacerbates the family’s economic distress.”
Findings in the report were compiled using data from the state’s Juvenile Justice Information System (JJIS). On its website, the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice says its mission is “To increase public safety by reducing juvenile delinquency through effective prevention, intervention and treatment services that strengthen families and turn around the lives of troubled youth.”
Hillsborough zip codes with the top three highest number of arrests include 33612, 33610 and 33604. Those zip codes include neighborhoods such as Carrollwood Gables, Forest Hills Village, North and East Tampa, University Square, Jackson Heights, Lowry Park, Sulphur Springs, Old Seminole Heights, Riverbend and others.
The top offenses in Hillsborough were burglary, assault and battery and aggravated assault and battery.
Pinellas County, with 2,979 arrests in 2019-20, came in third this year behind Orange County (Pinellas was also third in juvenile arrests the two previous fiscal years).
Pinellas zip codes with the most arrests include 33712, 33705 and 33771. Neighborhoods in those zip codes include Fairway Village, Coquina Key, Cromwell Heights, Lakewood Estates, Greater Pinellas Point, Highland Oaks and the Warehouse Arts District.
In Pinellas, the top offenses were violation of probation and burglary.
Of the Hillsborough arrests, 2,061—or 59%—were Black youth, 827 (24%) were white youth and 586 (17%) were Hispanic youth. The report added that 456 of the arrestees were categorized as female (1,605 were categorized as male). There was no category for trans juveniles arrested.
According to the report’s methodology, data in it is presented as counts of "arrests" or "youth arrested," with the count of arrests determined by selecting the most serious offense for any individual youth on a specific date.
“If the same juvenile was charged with additional offenses on the same date, these would still be counted as a single arrest, always using the most serious offense for descriptive purposes,” the report said. “If the youth was arrested on another date during the same fiscal year for one or more charges, that would be counted as another arrest.”
What’s more is that the number of youth arrested is determined by counting only the most serious arrest for which a youth is charged during any fiscal year.
“If the same youth is arrested for several offenses during that year, only one would be counted, using the most serious offense charged during the fiscal year,” the report added.
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