ST. PETERSBURG — The arrests of more than 1,700 juveniles were made in the city in 2013.
A majority of the youths wound up being cuffed, sat in the back of a police cruiser and then transported to the Pinellas County Juvenile Assessment Center on 49th Street North.
Unless the crime involves gang activity, firearms or a sex act, first-time offenders typically are offered the chance to enter a diversion program, downgrading their offense to a civil citation, meaning they have no arrest record or mug shot that can damage their chances at scholarships, military service or a career.
But even the temporary incarceration at the juvenile center can lead some youths to wrongly believe they have an arrest record and places them in the company of more serious offenders, factors that can increase the likelihood of repeat arrests.
The city is working on plans to keep more youths out of the juvenile center. Instead, it wants police officers to use more discretion and make more use of the option to hand over first-time offenders to their parents or guardians in cases where the teen admits their guilt and agrees to a diversion program that includes community service and services such as drug or family counseling where appropriate.
“The stigma that is attached to a physical arrest is considered a traumatic experience for many,” said city council member Amy Foster, who serves on the city’s Youth Services Committee. “Others have said, while in the JAC, youths learn other tricks of the trade, so we’re trying to prevent that from happening.”
The changes to the diversion system are the result of meetings between city leaders, the police department, the Juvenile Welfare Board, the state attorney’s office and other law enforcement and nonprofit groups that work with troubled youths.
Other recommendations include assigning a police department employee to work as a case manager to track kids in the program to make sure they attend community service appointments and court dates, and more training for officers to increase their awareness of the program.
In 2013, St. Petersburg police transported 1,033 children to the juvenile center. Transporting more youths to their parents would keep officers in the city and return them to their patrols more quickly, Interim Police Chief David DeKay said.
“They may not realize they do not have to transport them out there,” DeKay said. “That’s the training that may be needed.”
Fewer trips also could reduce costs for the city, saving an estimated $20,000 a year, Foster said.
City officials stressed that only first-time offenders who admit to having committed misdemeanor crimes are eligible for intervention. Juveniles who do not complete community service or who fail to show up for counseling or other behavioral treatment can end up being charged with the original offense.
“This program is designed for kids who make a stupid decision and learn from that,” Foster said.
Mayor Rick Kriseman pledged during his 2013 mayoral campaign to consider a civil citation program similar to the countywide program in which the city participates.
The city is likely to delay implementing the changes until a new police chief is appointed, said Kevin King, Kriseman’s chief of staff. Four finalists for the post are expected to be interviewed and take part in a public meeting this month.
“This is definitely something the mayor will talk to each of the candidates about,” King said. “Alternatives to incarceration and arrest avoidance are issues that mean a lot to the mayor.”
City officials also are investigating whether the city should adopt its own civil citation program that could use citations as an alternative to a criminal record for adults as well as juveniles, King said.
“The mayor wants to look at a bunch of options, both juveniles and adults,” King said.