A group of young teenagers, emboldened by each other’s bravado, heisted some beer from a store shelf and dashed out the door.
Military careers and college scholarships were the last things on their minds, even as they sat in patrol cars destined for the Juvenile Assessment Center in Bartow.
And later, when their diversion program was behind them and the only trace of their criminal charges was in their own memories, the reformed young adults considered the bright futures that lay before them.
Or so they thought.
“Even though their juvenile cases has been dismissed,” State Attorney Brian Haas said, “these kids were still getting an arrest record. And when they were asked on a college or a scholarship application if they’d ever been arrested, they had to say ‘Yes.’”
Or they may have responded that they’d never been arrested, not realizing that element of their ordeal hadn’t been erased.
Even before he took office in January, the newly elected top prosecutor in Polk, Highlands and Hardee counties for the 10th Judicial Circuit began seeking a resolution to that problem.
“There had to be a fix for that,” Haas said.
Now, there is.
Haas, with the help of law enforcement, court officials and representatives with the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, has crafted a program that helps these young offenders avoid arrest.
They still take the long ride in the back of a patrol car, known to law enforcement as the “therapeutic ride.”
But once they get to the Juvenile Assessment Center, many of them see their names added to a statewide database instead of listed on an arrest affidavit. The database, which is managed by the Department of Juvenile Justice, tracks juveniles who are picked up by law enforcement for minor offenses.
The change, however, applies only to those who were apprehended after June 20, when the new policy went into effect. Those whose cases were already in the system before that still will have an arrest record.
Lakeland Police Chief Larry Giddens, who’s joined other chiefs across the county in endorsing the program, said the pre-arrest program supports the concept that juvenile justice shouldn’t be one size fits all.
“We’ll have kids that make minor mistakes and nobody wants to ruin their lives,” he said. “This is an additional option to assist those kids.”
But it’s not for everybody.
The pre-arrest diversion program is available to those whose cases are referred to Teen Court, a long-standing program for youthful offenders with little to no criminal history who are facing non-violent misdemeanors and low-level felonies, like theft.
Through the program, offenders’ cases go before their peers — area high school students who serve as prosecutors, defense lawyers and court personnel. An actual judge presides over the proceeding.
As a condition of the program, the offenders must admit their guilt and be willing to accept the sentence handed down by their peers.
It’s what a young athlete from southeast Polk County recently experienced after she was caught shoplifting. Through Teen Court, the 15-year-old girl is completing 40 hours of community service, writing a letter of apology to the store, and attending a class on the dangers and impacts of theft.
“She is too naive for her own good,” her mother said, “and she got in with the wrong group.
“But I think Teen Court has been a good experience for her because it’s made her realize that if she ever has another inclination to do anything stupid, she’ll think twice,” the mother said.
Since she was apprehended after the new arrest policy went into effect, the girl’s record won’t reflect that she was taken into custody.
“I thank God for this program,” her mother said. “This really could have ruined all her chances for scholarships.”
This girl, Haas said, reflects those whom the program is designed to catch.
She was among the 135 cases that have been channeled into Teen Court since June 20, when the new pre-arrest policy was instituted. In 2016, about 750 juveniles saw their cases diverted to Teen Court. For the few who didn’t complete their sentences, their cases were sent back to the juvenile justice system for resolution.
Alison Fulford, chief probation officer for the Department of Juvenile Justice in Polk, Highlands and Hardee counties, said her office welcomes the change and is excited to be moving in this direction.
“We are all passionate about helping our youth,” she said.
Haas said his office is obligated to prosecute juveniles who commit violent crimes, but has an equal responsibility to help those who can be helped.
“The problem with the juvenile system is that it has a one-size-fits-all mentality,” he said. “And we need to be helping these kids that are having interaction with law enforcement. They may have gotten in with the wrong crowd or been having problems at home and they’re acting out.
“But this is an opportunity to get them the help they need so we never see them again in the criminal justice system,” he said. “Sometimes, people need wake-up calls, and if they clean up their act, why shouldn’t they have the opportunity to go to college and get a scholarship?”
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