City Council Needs to Support Civil Citation and Smart Juvenile Justice Reforms

Reggie Fullwood
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Reggie Fullwood
Reggie Fullwood

“If we don’t stand up for children, then we don’t stand for much,” said Marian Wright Edelman.

I couldn’t agree more; and that is one of the reason why several elected officials and nonprofits are supporting an effort to expand the use of civil citations in Jacksonville,and really throughout the state. Civil citations are a critical mechanism that can be used to keep our children out of the justice system for mostly petty crimes.

It is simply diversion in the form of a ticket (like a traffic ticket), that requires community service and maybe a small fine; but the most critical component is that it keeps children out of jail.

Working its way through Jacksonville City Council is a Memorandum of Understanding in the form of a resolution that is supported by the Public Defenders office, state legislators, Superintendent of Schools, and many others. So what’s the problem – sounds like a good thing – keeping mostly first-time offenders who commit misdemeanorcrimes out of jail.

While State Attorney Angela Corey agrees with the notion – how it’s implemented, tracked and correlates to her own internal diversion programs are apparently a concern for her. A couple of weeks ago she asked for the City Council to differ the resolution until she had time to give proper input.

So by a 10-7 vote the council agreed to send it back to committees and await feedback from Corey.

I am not sure of the politics at play here, but supporting civil citations is the right thing to do – period.

This resolution basically helps put a framework in place between the State Attorney’s Office, Public Defender, Courts, and Sherriff’s Office. The first paragraph of the memorandum reads, “Law enforcement in the Fourth Judicial Circuit has a long-standing practice of utilizing non-arrest diversion for first time offenders who commit non-serious crimes. The procedures pertaining to non-arrest or “at-large” diversion allow for proper constitutional screening of a case, further investigation by law enforcement, and appropriate contact with victims. “

It continues, “The State Attorney’s Office and local law enforcement agencies will continue to utilize this method to handle first time offenders who are deserving of non-arrest diversion.”

Again, this program is critical. All kids make mistakes; but in the past we have treated too many of our young men and women like they were incapable of being reformed.

Back in my day – a fight between two guys that had a disagreement basically landed you with in-school or out-of-school suspension for a couple of days. Now our kids are being taken to jail for simple one-on-one fights and other small altercations at school. That’s not smart justice. That’sexposing a child to the justice system when many of these matters could be dealt with internally at the schools.

If we are going to help our children, we must have fewer students arrested at school for non-violent offenses. We also have to actually use the civil citation alternative and other community-based options instead of incarceration. There are some great officers that use civil citations, and some that just refuse to under any circumstance.

Advocates for Smart Juvenile Justice reform want to focus more on prevention and rehabilitation; and also on intervening at the first sign of trouble and providing services to deal with the underlying issues that lead to young people offending.

Sending troubled kids to adult prisons is not the answer. Wehave to figure out a way to stop our children from being transferred into the adult system. Florida is a unique state in so many ways – some good and some bad.

While the trend nationally has been to promote alternative methods of punishment, Florida leads the nation, and Duval County leads the state in sending children to the adult court system. Experts and studies have shown that when youth are sentenced to the adult system, they are much more likely to become career criminals.

James Baldwin said it best, “Children have never been good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” In other words, by placing so many youth in the adult system, we are essentially creating Frankenstein’s monsters.

Think about this fact: 54 percent of the Duval County children that were arrested and then referred to adult court last year were not violent offenders. There’s something clearly wrong with our system when reform and prevention are not as important as saying that we are “tough on crime.”

We have basically criminalized student misbehavior.According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, “Research has shown that pushing children out of school, unnecessarily locking them up in detention centers and youth prisons, and sending them into the adult criminaljustice systems to be tried as adults, does not reduce crime.”

Dr. Robert Johnson, is a parenting specialist and says, “African American children in this country are growing up under the weight of the pressures that are created by racism, and it has an effect in schools and commercial settings everywhere and parents need to strengthen their children with the abilities and skills to overcome that.”

Easier said than done Doc!

Clearly student poor student achievement is a byproduct of how our state and county deal with our juveniles. Overuse of arrest and other punitive discipline policies have lead to low graduation rates and low performance.

I realize that the flip side of this coin is that some repeat and/or violent offenders have received multiple chances and should be treated as adults. Well, there certainly are those people, but they don’t make up the majority of the population of kids that I am talking about.

But think about this – some 440 Jacksonville children were arrested last year in public schools or at school functions, and over half of them had never been arrested before.

There are states and even counties in Florida that are doing it right. During that same timeframe only 94 Dade County youth were committed to residential facilities – a county much more populated than Jacksonville.

We know the issue – now we need the political and community will to refocus our efforts on reforming our students who make mistakes, versus the system automatically dropping the hammer on every kid it can.

In the words of Judge William Hibbler, “Children don’t stop being children when they commit a crime.” City Council needs to move forward with the resolution without amendments.

Signing off from the Duval County Juvenile Detention Center,

Reggie Fullwood

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