Student Well-Being

A Release Valve for Florida’s School-to-Prison Pipeline

By Sarah D. Sparks — June 26, 2018 3 min read
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Moving from arresting students to civil citations and alternative programs can help reduce both youth crime and racial disparities in discipline, according to a new study of expanding youth programs in Florida.

Earlier this year, the Florida legislature overhauled part of its juvenile justice system to require each judicial circuit to adopt pre-arrest “diversion” programs for young people, and to give counties the ability to expand the sorts of crimes that would be eligible for the alternative programs. The study, released on Wednesday, looked at how early attempts have changed arrest and recidivism rates, particularly for school-based arrests.

“The problem being addressed here is arrests for common youth misbehavior, acts that once would get us into the principal’s office or result in a call to our parents, are now often resolved in an arrest,” said Dewey Caruthers, a juvenile justice expert and an author of the study.

He noted that entering the juvenile justice system can put students at much higher risk of not graduating high school or being employed as an adult. And Florida, in particular, has reported students in corrections education get less class time than average.

To participate in a civil citation diversion program, a juvenile who has committed an eligible crime—generally misdemeanors that do not involve sexual crimes—is given a needs assessment and intervention services, completes community service, and pays restitution for damages. However, the young person is not arrested or given a criminal record, and can continue to attend school while completing the program.

“A civil citation is not like a traffic ticket. It’s not pay a fine and you are done,” said Scott McCoy, senior policy counsel of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “It’s not that kids are not held accountable—it’s that they are held accountable in the most positive way. They are appropriately assessed and given programs tailored to that assessment.”

The experts acknowledged that recent school shootings, such as one in Parkland, Fla., could make some schools inclined to refer more students who cause trouble at school for arrest, but, “I really think that if people look at the data and step away from the emotion surrounding the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, you can see that from a public policy perspective it actually makes us more safe rather than less,” McCoy said.

The study found only 4 percent of youths who completed pre-arrest diversion programs committed another crime within 12 months. For those who participated in similar diversion programs after an arrest, the recidivism rate was 11 percent, according to the study.

The study also suggests that focusing more on civil citations reduced racial disparities in school-based arrests. For example, Duval County, where black students were 16 percentage points more likely to be arrested at school than white students in 2016, saw the racial arrest gap close by half in 2017, after significantly expanding its use of diversion programs. Moreover, the average arrest rate for students eligible for the diversion program is now 10 percent for black students and 12 percent for white students.

The counties that have successfully lowered youth arrests put into place specific policies and training to change how police approach youth for law enforcement. For example, while all police in the state have some discretion in whether to arrest or issue a civil citation for low-level crimes, state attorneys in some judicial circuits in the state can reject that decision and refer a young person for arrest after he had already been given a citation. By contrast, Pinellas County took the opposite approach, creating a Juvenile Assessment Center to review youth arrests to decide if they should be changed to a civil citation. Pinellas County

“What that research tells us is after putting a law enforcement officer in a school, the arrests for things like disorderly conduct go up,” said Michelle Morton, a juvenile justice policy coordinator for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. As more districts incorporate school resource officers for security, they must provide clear training and guidelines on how and when officers should approach student misbehavior.

Chart Source: Source: Caruthers Institute


A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.