State Attorney's Office's initiative changes processing of juvenile cases

'Project No/No' gives juveniles chance at clean record, Ayala says

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. – Orange-Osceola State Attorney Aramis Ayala's Office has implemented a new initiative regarding the processing of minors as a way to protect children under the age of 18 from being a part of the system, officials said Tuesday.

Ayala said there are instances where law enforcement officials decide that a juvenile should not be arrested, but officers still submit a report to her office to be reviewed. There are often times where from reviewing the report, her office finds that the case cannot be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, Ayala said.

The state attorney said as a part of her commitment to criminal justice reform, she has implemented this initiative, called "Project No/No," to ensure that in those cases that cannot be proven beyond reasonable doubt, children do not have a criminal record that would follow them into adulthood, Ayala said.

"We are giving those juveniles the opportunity to have a clean record,” Ayala said. “We believe this program will make a difference in the lives of our youth and eliminate unnecessary case processing by the clerk.”

Ayala said that prior to the implementation of Project No/No, which stands for "no arrest, no official record," a case would still be processed by the clerk's office even if the juvenile had not been arrested. Minors would often already have an official court record before the State Attorney's Office even reviewed the case to determine whether charges were appropriate, Ayala's public information officer Eryka Washington said.

Juvenile Bureau Chief Teri Mills-Uvalle said she found situations like this while working and thought they raised questions.

“As I was working on cases, I found instances where juveniles had official court records despite insufficient evidence to charge,” Mills-Uvalle said. "I asked myself: ‘Why are we treating juveniles more harshly than we would treat adults?'"

Mills-Uvalle said that adult cases went directly to the State Attorney's Office, bypassing the clerk's office, when the adult had not been arrested.

"Why are we applying a different procedure with juveniles?” Mills-Uvalle asked.

She said that if the State Attorney's Office had chosen to send the juvenile to a diversion program instead of filing charges, the minor would still have an official court record even after successfully completing the program.

As part of the initiative, which is being spearheaded by Mills-Uvalle, all non-arrest juvenile cases will go directly to the State Attorney's Juvenile Bureau, Washington said. There, the Intake Unit will review the case to see if charges are appropriate, review the minor's history, contact the victim or victims in the case and determine whether the juvenile is eligible for a diversion program and whether the minor should face charges, officials said.

Mills-Uvalle said Tuesday afternoon during a press conference that the initiative is no different than the adult system.

“What we’ve done is we’ve changed the juvenile system to mirror the adult system," Mills-Uvalle said.

Mills-Uvalle said that in 2016, the office received 6,100 cases on juveniles. Of those cases, the office kept 3,900 and diverted 1,500 to their diversion programs, which kept those juveniles out of the system.

 “So I think the fact of the matter is, were talking about 60 percent of the kids, we will see once and never see them again. There’s another 40 percent of the kids, that out of those 40 percent, there’s probably 10 percent that are repeat offenders. Those are the ones we need to focus on,” Mills-Uvalle said. “And if we’re going to work with those kids in the juvenile justice system, we need to give them all the resources we can possibly get them so that they don’t end up in the adult system."

Since the program was put in place in April, 767 juveniles did not begin the process with an official criminal record, Ayala said.

Mills-Uvalle said the program was not retroactive, meaning that juveniles involved in similar cases before the initiative was implemented would still have records, even if charges against them were dropped.

“They’re still going to have a court record that says, ‘Charges were filed, but charges were dropped,’” Mills-Uvalle said.

In order to hide those records from the public, Mills-Uvalle said the person with the record would need to go through the process of trying to have it sealed or expunged.