Juvenile arrests dramatically down in Orange County due to civil citations

Local law enforcement officers revamp approach with juvenile offenders

By Erik von Ancken - Anchor/Reporter

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. - It used to be that when a teenager committed a misdemeanor crime, he or she would often be taken to jail or to the Juvenile Justice Center. 

Now, law enforcement officers have options.

For minor offenses such as fighting or shoplifting, law enforcement officers can issue a "civil citation" -- a ticket, essentially, with consequences.

Often, those consequences include community service, counseling and a letter of apology, depending on the agreement made between the officer and the state attorney, but no jail time and no permanent record.

"Instead of just putting handcuffs on them and arresting them, we try and find a root to the problem," Liberty Middle School resource officer Deputy Al Harrison said.

Harrison acts as a friend, counselor and mentor to the middle school students.

"You've got to stop hanging out and not going to class and being late," Harrison warned a student.

When a student commits a misdemeanor, Harrison often uses a civil citation rather than handcuffs.

"I believe it's getting results. I see it every day," Harrison said.

Gov. Rick Scott said in December that juvenile arrests across Florida are down 24 percent in five years. Orange County has had the biggest drop with a 15 percent decrease compared to the year before.

Orlando Police Chief John Mina and Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings said civil citations and the rehabilitation programs played a large role in the decrease.

"The citations aren't what get results. It's really the programmatic pieces of being diverted into programs," Demings said. "If the state attorney authorizes it, then the individual gets diverted into community service. It's those things that make the difference."

Demings said the YMCA, Boys & Girls Club and the Boy Scouts are examples of the programmatic pieces that help turn troubled teenagers around.

"And that's the ultimate goal. We want them to choose to do the right thing over the wrong thing," Demings said. "Because it's a minor offense, you get another chance. And law enforcement is behind that all the way." 

According to the Department of Juvenile Justice, teenagers who are given a civil citation have a 5 percent chance of reoffending. Those who are arrested have a 9 percent chance.

Demings pointed to the number of teenagers in the Orange County Jail lately. He said that, on any given day, there used to be upward of 100 juveniles locked up. On Wednesday morning, he said there were only 10.

 "All of that is resulting in children making better choices," Demings said. "They're choosing to not commit a crime." 

"Juvenile crime is down in Orange County," said Demings.

Mina said his officers are seeing a change as well.

"Crime is down. We're arresting less juveniles," Mina said. "If we cannot arrest a juvenile for being in a fight at school, or a minor theft of shoplifting, then it's going to set that juvenile on the right path. They're going to have to go to counseling or community service." 

The Orange County School District has partnered with the Sheriff's Office and Police Department in creating a program called Restorative Justice, which identifies troubled students and uses counseling to get to the root of the problem.

Juveniles who commit felonies, however, are arrested. 

"For example, if the charge is related to gang activity or domestic violence, then they're ineligible for a civil citation," Demings said. 

"What I say to those who believe law enforcement may be getting soft on crime, what I would say to them is this: Law enforcement must have the discretion in the field to make a decision appropriate to the circumstances," Demings said. "And at the end of the day, I believe the average citizen is fine with it if there's some accountability for the juvenile's actions."

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