Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Criminalizing Minor Offenses Is Wrong

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Criminalizing Minor Offenses Is Wrong

Article excerpt

Byline: Tonyaa Weathersbee

It took quite an effort for Rhonda Peoples-Waters to help her teenage client put his past behind him so that he could stake out a future.

The youth had gotten into a fight at school early last year with another classmate who had been bullying his girlfriend.

But it wasn't until he tried to join the Armed Forces that he learned that the police were looking for him.

"My client had never been in trouble before," Peoples-Waters told me. "He had a 3.27 average and everything, but when he went to sign up for the military, they told him there was an arrest warrant out for him ...

"It took a lot to get him through all the hoops to get his record expunged. But if we hadn't stepped in, what would have happened if he had been left to figure all that out on his own?"

PIPELINE TO PRISON

Worse, what would have happened if he had simply given up? Caved to his discouragement?

For one, he might not have been on the path to the military but in the school-to-prison pipeline, the downward spiral that begins when students are suspended, arrested or hit with heavy-handed penalties for infractions that were once dealt with in the principal's or guidance counselor's offices.

Secondly, if he had wound up on that pipeline, taxpayers would be paying a higher price for his incarceration than he would pay by being denied a second chance.

That's why civil citations instead of arrests for youths who get into scrapes for the first time is an idea that is long overdue.

According to the state's Department of Juvenile Justice, civil citations are a means of dealing with juvenile first-time offenders so that they get the counseling and intervention they need without being arrested and amassing a record early in life.

The department is pushing an initiative urging school districts to use such citations more often. …

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