TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) -- A newly released study has bolstered a call to expand diversion programs for juvenile offenders in Florida.
Released Wednesday, the report found that a 25 percent increase in the use of civil citations as alternatives to arrest would save taxpayers as much as $61 million --- while keeping kids from handicapping their futures because of common misbehavior such as fighting, drinking or using drugs.
"The difference between children with an arrest record and those without an arrest record is some children get caught," said Roy Miller, president of the Children's Campaign, an advocacy group that supported the study.
The report found that being arrested as a juvenile "can impact employment, postsecondary education, housing and loans for the rest of (the offenders') lives."
The use of civil citations has grown enormously in Florida over the past four years. They offer law-enforcement officers the option of diverting teens into mandatory community service for certain offenses. Additionally, offenders are required to write letters of apology to the victims and sometimes to law officers. They're also assessed to see whether they are likely to re-offend, and, if so, are provided with other services --- such as anger management or substance-abuse treatment.
"Children are afforded the chance to recognize their mistake and alter their behavior without the negative consequence of an arrest record," Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Christy Daly wrote in an email. "This early intervention can be key to getting a child back on track and save their future."
Dewey Caruthers, president of a Tampa-based firm that conducted the study, said the recidivism rate is 4 percent for offenders who complete civil-citation programs --- compared with 42 percent for juveniles who serve time in residential facilities.
"Civil citations save tax dollars, in that their use is less expensive than arrest and subsequent involvement in the juvenile justice system," Caruthers said. "These dollars can be reinvested into law enforcement to prevent and combat more serious crimes and felonies."
According to the study, 21,349 youth were eligible for civil citations in fiscal year 2013-2014, but 8,059 --- or 62 percent --- were arrested.
Miami-Dade County came in first among Florida counties for its use of civil citations with 91 percent of juvenile cases. Caruthers credited former Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Wansley Walters, who pioneered the program in Miami-Dade before Gov. Rick Scott appointed her to head DJJ in 2011.
Walters praised the report and said the use of civil citations would continue to grow as law-enforcement agencies become more comfortable with the practice.
"I'm looking at the statistics of communities that initially told me when I was secretary that this was not something they would be interested in," she said. "And now they are in the top 20 percent of agencies using civil citation."
Four years ago, seven Florida counties had civil-citation programs. Today, according to the report, the only counties without them are Polk, Manatee, Sarasota, Suwannee, Hardee, Calhoun, Dixie, Gulf, Washington, Bradford and Taylor.
"I feel sorry for those communities," said Walters, now a lobbyist and chairwoman of the Florida Children and Youth Cabinet. "And I feel sorry for those children, being saddled with arrest records when children around the state of Florida are not having that happen."
The study estimates the savings of using civil citations at $1,467 to $4,614 per juvenile. It cites earlier work, including a 2010 report by Associated Industries of Florida, which found that processing offenders through the juvenile-justice system cost $5,000, while issuing a civil citation cost $386.
A 2011 report by the Florida TaxWatch Center for Smart Justice put taxpayer savings from the use of civil citations at $44 million to $139 million annually.
Other groups calling to expand the use of civil citations included the Center for Accountable Justice at Florida State University, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the James Madison Institute.
"Civil citation is not a magic bullet," said Lisa Carmona of the Southern Poverty Law Center. "But it certainly does put common sense back into the system."
(The News Service of Florida's Margie Menzel contributed to this report.)
for more features.