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January 31, 2013

Civil citations for juveniles being tested in Hamilton

Jasper — A new procedure for first time juvenile misdemeanor offenders has recently been introduced into Hamilton County in cooperation with the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) and the local Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office.

According to the DJJ website, “The Florida Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) civil citation initiative addresses a youth’s behavior at his or her first encounter with the juvenile justice system and provides an alternative to arrest for that child.”

Civil citations, the DJJ says are vital to their efforts to reform the juvenile justice system by giving first-time misdemeanor offenders the opportunity to participate in intervention services at the earliest stage of delinquency. The program can also save millions of dollars that would otherwise be spent if youth were arrested and required to go through formal delinquency processing.

DJJ Assistant Chief Probation Officer Tom Witt presented the details of the program to the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office several months ago and Sheriff Reid said he thought it sounded like a good idea. He assigned Sergeant Ken Blanton and Officer Anthony Williams to meet with Juvenile Justice officials to discuss the program and it has been in place for the last couple of months.

“We decided we’d give it a try,” said Reid.

“It’s basically to give kids a second chance,” said Blanton.

Witt, at a recent meeting of the Hamilton County Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention Coalition, stated, “It has to be a first offense, it has to be a minor offense and it has to be a misdemeanor offense.”

Battery, assault, non-firearm weapon possession, animal cruelty and trespassing are misdemeanors that qualify under the program. Blanton said the offender has to admit guilt, the complainant has to agree to the program, and the child’s parent has to agree to the program.

There are other offenses that aren’t eligible for a civil citation, one of which is any misdemeanor that involves possession of a firearm.

Sheriff Reid said, “An officer has the discretion on a juvenile to issue a civil citation, as opposed to officially charging (the offender) and doing the paperwork on a criminal charge.”

Reid said it is completely voluntary on the offender’s part as to whether or not they wish to accept the civil citation. If they do accept it, then they won’t get arrested, won’t go to jail, and won’t be criminally charged. Of course, there are specific guidelines under the program that the offender must follow in order to avoid an arrest later down the road by not complying with all the terms of the civil citation.

Family counseling, urinalysis testing, a letter of apology to the victim, restitution, and school process monitoring are some of the conditions of the civil citation. In some cases that involve graffiti or criminal mischief, community service hours must be completed.

So far, Blanton confirmed there are two juvenile first time offenders in the county who have been offered and have opted to accept the civil citation and go through the program.

The DJJ says the program has been proven to increase public safety by reducing juvenile crime. It also saves tax dollars with the judicial system, helps the local community work together to build successful youth and strengthen families, as well as makes the young offenders accountable for their actions.

If the offender successfully completes the program, then the charge goes away and won’t follow the offender into adulthood, Blanton said. The DJJ will keep track of all civil citations and if the juvenile commits another crime they can’t go into the program again.

Blanton explained that if the youthful offender does not complete the program, which is monitored by the DJJ, then it all goes back to the State Attorneys Office, who will proceed with the original criminal charge against the offender.

Reid said the concept has the potential to be a good thing, especially if the offender is basically a good kid who simply made a wrong choice.

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