Capitol Report: Good Kids to Become Pre-Delinquents – or Worse

Juvenile justice policymaking in Florida is like walking in a forest without a compass. It drifts in one direction then another with much backtracking and a poorly defined destination.

Nowhere is this more evident than in HB 1181 and its companion SB 1274. While the Department of Juvenile Justice has boasted about juvenile crime being at an all-time low, these bills subject children of any age to being labeled as felons and open the door to radical changes to the highly successful civil citation program – even renaming it as “pre-arrest delinquency citation.”

Under this bill, children would be (pre) delinquents, rather than as “good kids” who made a mistake. It’s a shift in labels that flies in the face of years of research labeling theory, reducing recidivism and promoting successful futures.

The bills also open the door in practice, not just in statute, for wide variations in diversion programs, which means children will be treated unevenly across the state for similar misbehavior.

The vast majority of Floridians believe that balance, fairness and accountability should flank all attempts to promote justice for children. These bills lack all three.

Irresponsible Adults Not Held Accountable for Child Gun Possession

Florida is far down the path in normalizing gun possession. One or more guns exist in more households than ever before.

While most people would agree that children should not play with real guns, it cannot be refuted that guns often become “EYE CANDY” due to irresponsible choices and behaviors by parents and adults. Guns are found on car seats, under couch cushions or beds, in nightstands, or even sloppily tossed on top of kitchen cabinets or stashed in drawers. There is no Florida requirement for the use of gun safes.

Dangerous, hair-splitting wording in the proposed statute could result in mandatory felony charges and secure detention for children who are found in possession of a gun in their own home, rather than the current charge of misdemeanor. The role of the judge is demoted to robotic handling. The parent or adult gunowner who is supposed to act in the child’s best interest is not held accountable whatsoever.

But wait, there’s more. Subsequent possessions escalate sanctions on the child but not the parent or adult gun owner. And the robotic role of the judge remains unchanged. In scenario after scenario the child and not the gun owner becomes a two-time felon.

Let’s be clear. No one is suggesting we should ignore gun possession or illegal use by a child. We’re also aware of and sensitive to the dangerous element of teens with guns that exist in the community. Legislation proposed should target that population and not with the wide net of this bill.

For many kids, gun possession is actually a HUGE warning sign that a child’s life or family setting is derailing off the track.

The entire juvenile justice system was created to be oriented toward early intervention and rehabilitation and not unnecessarily saddling kids with the life changing label of felon. It’s why judges are needed to weigh the facts of each case.

Arresting More Children Is Not The Answer

Another wolf in sheep’s clothing is the change in terminology for civil citation, the incredibly successful Florida law of avoiding the arrest of children and the corresponding stigma of carrying an arrest record for misdemeanors typically involving immaturity and minor rebellious acts.

There is an old saying about youth misbehavior. All children and teens do it. Some get caught. Some do not. It’s a crap shoot and justice equity is the foundation of the existing civil citation law.

Some counties have issued civil citations rather than making an arrest as much as 90-95 times out of a hundred. They are not experiencing escalating crime rates according to testimony. Instead of catch and release with structured conditions, under this new legislation many communities will rethink its arrest policy and design its own diversion program whether based in research or best practice or not.

The result? Injustice by geography will be accentuated beyond what is already occurring.

Governor DeSantis needs to put this rush to “get tough” on his radar, understanding it’s really a rush to compromise a lot of kids lives.

Balance. Fairness. Accountability. These three pillars are expected by Floridians in the pursuit of policy impacting children and public safety. The absence of all three is good reason to stall these bills even though the House version has reached the chamber’s floor, its last stop before official passage. The Senate is not far behind.

Battling serious crime requires more thought than is displayed in these bills. So is consistency in policies of gun responsibility and safety. Where does the accountability of the parent or adult fit into the public safety equation?