Fla. sheriff: New policy change could cut youth arrests in half

The Orange County Sheriff's Office will soon allow deputies to cite minors arrested for misdemeanors instead of arresting them

Cristóbal Reyes
Orlando Sentinel

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — The Orange County Sheriff’s Office will soon allow deputies to issue citations to minors arrested for misdemeanor domestic battery, rather than arresting them, a change that came after months of discussions with local advocates, according to Sheriff John Mina.

“We believe that by giving [deputies] a little more discretion in those cases, where there’s no injury and we can cool the situation down, ... it will drastically reduce the number of arrests," Mina told the Orlando Sentinel in an interview.

Orange County Sheriff John Mina said his deputies will be given discretion in calls involving minors where there is no physical injury.
Orange County Sheriff John Mina said his deputies will be given discretion in calls involving minors where there is no physical injury. (Photo/TNS)

He added the agency is projected to reduce last year’s youth arrest numbers “by half.”

The policy change was announced in a recent op-ed written in response to a special report by the Orlando Sentinel, which revealed inconsistent uses of juvenile civil citations across the state.

In the 2018-19 fiscal year, Orange County school resource officers issued civil citations in two-thirds of cases involving first-time misdemeanor offenders, often for schoolyard fights. Outside of school, civil citations were issued 21% of the time in 2019 for most offenses, and almost never in domestic violence cases, according to Department of Juvenile Justice data.

Currently, deputies follow a zero-tolerance policy for domestic battery, which in youth cases often involve a minor scuffle between family members, like when a mother takes a cellphone from their child and "he tries to grab for it [and] breaks mom’s nail, [which] is technically domestic battery,” Mina said.

The Sheriff’s Office recorded 240 domestic battery arrests in 2019. Prosecutors opted not to file charges in nearly three-quarters of those cases, a DJJ analysis shows.

Mina said the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed making the new policy official but he hopes to put it into effect in the coming months.

The Sheriff’s Office frequently fields suggestions from advocacy groups like the Players Coalition and the League of Women Voters of Orange County on how to reform its practices. Many recent changes, including a 2018 reform barring the use of handcuffs on minors 13 and younger, were direct results of those discussions, Mina said.

“That comes from that philosophy that we don’t want to be putting kids in jail, we don’t want to be putting those kids in handcuffs,” Mina said. “We had a lot of discussions and back and forth and took input from that.”

Nicolette Springer, the juvenile justice chair for the local League of Women Voters, said making misdemeanor domestic battery eligible for a juvenile civil citation has been high on the organization’s list of priorities for years.

Current policies were “really tying the hands of law enforcement because many times, this case was not domestic violence as we think of it,” Springer said. “It was maybe a child pushed their brother or maybe a child put their hands on their parent or guardian and didn’t cause any harm physically. It was just a physical struggle, but it got classified as domestic violence.”

And while she praised the move by the Sheriff’s Office, she said arrest data shows “there’s room for improvement" in how law enforcement interacts with minors, particularly in communities of color.

“When you compare [Central Florida] to other communities across the state or across the nation that have similar populations to ours, our [arrest numbers] are much higher,” Springer said. “So it does require us to revisit and look at how we’re addressing these issues.”

Similarly sized Pinellas County is often praised for its virtually ubiquitous use of civil citations when dealing with youth offenders, partly due to policies giving officers broad discretion when dealing with first- to third-time youth offenders accused of misdemeanors.

Last year, law enforcement agencies there reported using civil citations 99% of the time for first-time offenders and 93% of the time in domestic battery cases, according to the DJJ.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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