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Court Reporting Requirements Hitching A Ride On Prized Juvenile Justice Bill

Christopher Schmidt via flickr

A top priority of Florida’s Senate President is now ready for a floor vote. But after some political maneuvering, the bill also contains a controversial amendment targeting the state Supreme Court. The change could challenge lawmakers’ loyalties.

Florida lawmakers want to change how young people are punished for low level offenses. If senators get their way, trespassing, and possession of alcohol and small amounts of pot, would result in a ticket, instead of jail time. Here’s bill sponsor Anitere Flores, a Miami Republican.

“The law enforcement officer would be required to issue a civil citation rather than have them go into the adult court system or even to the juvenile justice system,” Flores said.

Local officers and deputies are already issuing tickets for certain misdemeanors, if it’s a first time offense. Rusty May is a reverend in Fort Myers. He says these programs are a second chance for offenders who then…

“Apologize to the victim, the officer and those affected by their actions; meet with community impact panels and learn life skills; are referred to counseling or alcohol and drug treatment programs when called for. Conversely, if they go to jail, these character-building actions rarely take place,” May said.

But because the program is voluntary, it can vary from county to county, or even officer to officer. Which is why Flores wants to make civil citations mandatory.

“If every county was like Pinellas County and had a 90%, in some years it’s as high as 94% of civil citations, we wouldn’t have to be doing this bill. We wouldn’t!” Flores insisted.

Steve Kinsey is the undersheriff in Broward County. Since 2012, his department has mandated civil citations. And he says the program is reducing recidivism and preventing officer bias.

“Sending them to the juvenile detention centers, they come out better criminals in most cases. They learn to be better car burglars. But we’ve shown that putting them in this program and making it mandatory and taking that discretion away from our deputies allows them to not put any personal bias into it,” Kinsey said.

The benefits are clear: less jail time and fewer criminal records for young people. But St. Petersburg Republican Senator Jeff Brandes believes there are cases when an officer should be able to make the call.

“I appreciate everything in this bill except for one word. And that is the ‘shall’, where I believe it should be ‘may’. And I appreciate the sheriff from Broward’s comments about what his local department does. But I don’t think we should take discretion away from law enforcement,” Brandes said.

Something else is giving lawmakers pause as well. Thursday Flores added a controversial judicial reform to the bill.

“The Florida Supreme Court has to provide an annual report regarding information about cases on the court’s docket that the court has not resolved in 180 days. The court also has to include information about cases decided by the court, but a decision is not rendered in 180 days,” Flores said.

Basically, lawmakers think the court isn’t turning cases fast enough, and they want more data. Opponents say it’s part of a concerted effort to erode the independence of the judiciary. It’s a top priority for House leadership, but it’s been losing momentum in the Senate. Flores is pretty frank about the move.

“We’re at the point in session where different bills may not be fully moving along the process. So this is an opportunity for several senators’ issues to be brought together," Flores said. "It’s a good way to have even more support for this very good bill.”

The civil citations bill has been slowing down in the House, and Flores is hopeful her colleagues will come around. Back in her own chamber, neither the law enforcement mandate nor the reporting requirements were enough to derail the bill. It now heads to the Senate floor.

As a Tallahassee native, Kate Payne grew up listening to WFSU. She loves being part of a station that had such an impact on her. Kate is a graduate of the Florida State University College of Motion Picture Arts. With a background in documentary and narrative filmmaking, Kate has a broad range of multimedia experience. When she’s not working, you can find her rock climbing, cooking or hanging out with her cat.