ST. PETERSBURG — Florida’s faith leaders are asking the state to abandon arrests for minors who commit misdemeanor crimes, which they say trap teens in the criminal justice system.
During sermons and gatherings throughout the state this weekend, leaders with Faith and Action for Strength Together, a congregation-based lobbying group in Pinellas County, will preach on the issue and encourage the passing of a state bill mandating the use of a civil citation program already in place for minors who commit first-time misdemeanors.
“These arrest records stay with them for the rest of their lives,” said the Rev. Willie McClendon, a member of FAST and pastor at Largo’s Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church. “With this computer system we have today, when they go and apply for a job or a scholarship, they can’t get them.”
A juvenile justice bill was filed in the Florida Senate on Friday that would allow civil citations to be issued to repeat juvenile offenders, and for arrests only to be made in “exceptional” situations for first-time offenders. The bill was filed by Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Miami. Rep. Larry Ahern, R-Seminole, is set to file a companion bill in the House, FAST said.
McClendon said the initiative is tied to Martin Luther King Jr. Day because juvenile arrests are a civil rights issue.
“So often people forget what Martin Luther King stood for,” McClendon said. “He gave his life for justice, for civil rights, for equal rights. We need to raise that up.”
While blacks make up 21 percent of Florida’s youth population, they make up 50 percent of all juvenile arrests, FAST reports.
Elder James Myles of Bethel Community Baptist Church in St. Petersburg said with national reports of tension and violence between officers and black men, civil citations could help mend the fences between law enforcement and young blacks.
“It gives them an opportunity to give them a positive exchange,” Myles said.
Often juveniles who get in trouble with the law already face roadblocks to a successful future, whether it be living in a single-parent household or in a low-income community, Myles said. Civil citations would allow many of those minors to keep a clean slate even when they make a mistake, he said.
McClendon said Pinellas County does a good job for the most part offering civil citations and trying not to create a juvenile criminal record, but the same consideration isn’t found in all parts of Florida. In Sarasota and Polk counties, no eligible youths were offered a civil citation route, according to the last 12 months of available data from the Department of Juvenile Justice.
Seventy-nine percent of eligible youths were issued a civil citation in Pinellas County, compared to 32 percent in Hillsborough County and a 38 percent statewide average.
St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway has spoken on the subject, and named lowering youth arrest rates in the city and utilizing more civil citations as a goal when he became chief last summer.
“When they have a charge on their back, all they have left to do is commit crime,” Holloway said at an August meeting with the St. Petersburg branch of the NAACP. “We are going to work as much as possible trying to educate our kids and get our kids back into the community.”
St. Petersburg City Councilman Wengay Newton has been alarmed about juvenile arrest numbers for years and was pleased to hear FAST is taking up the cause.
“FAST has had it on their radar, but this is the first time I heard them talk about it. I think they need to,” said Newton, whose largely poor south St. Petersburg district struggles with juvenile crime issues.
He said St. Petersburg is arresting nearly 200 juveniles a month and transporting them to county juvenile jail. The cost to process them is nearly $500,000 a year, he said. The personal cost to the kids, and the community, is higher.
“These are permanent records these kids are getting and it’s going haunt them in their adult life,” he said. “When they can’t get gainfully employed, we end up taking care of them,” in jail costs and public assistance.
Newton said many states refuse to release juvenile arrest records, giving young offenders a chance to start clean, and he thinks Florida should do the same.
“I’m not saying some kids shouldn’t be locked up; but it should be the exception not the rule. We can’t just lock them up, give them records. That’s not going to work,” he said. “You can’t ruin their lives with permanent records and think everything is going to be all right.”
Four Hillsborough County and 10 Pinellas County congregations are planning to launch their support of the initiative at services this weekend.