Emily Mooney: To Ensure Equal Justice Under the Law, Florida Needs to Improve Youth Diversion

The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and too many others have revived statewide conversations around racial disparities within Florida’s criminal justice system. While much of this dialogue has focused on policing reform, we must address racial inequities at every point in the justice system to ensure equal justice under the law. Expanding Florida’s use of youth diversion, including civil citations, is a good place to start.

“Youth diversion” refers to programs and policies that steer children away from the traditional criminal justice process. In Florida, diversion can happen when a police officer gives a young person a warning or civil citation in lieu of an arrest, or when youth are referred to community-based diversion services rather than being detained or adjudicated.

Youth diversion programs are overwhelmingly positive for young people and communities. They protect children from common, long-term ramifications of formal justice interventions like incarceration—including delinquency records, permanent damage to educational outcomes and an increased probability of future incarceration.

They are also demonstrably better for public safety: Florida’s pre-arrest civil citation diversion program has boasted a recidivism rate as low as four percent, while the statewide diversion services recently reported an 11 percent recidivism rate. Both statistics suggest diverted youth are far less likely to return to crime when compared to youth on state-operated probation or in residential programs.

Furthermore, by removing adolescents from the traditional justice process, diversion allows scarce resources to be better spent prosecuting and rehabilitating those who have committed serious, violent crimes. According to the Caruthers Institute, pre-arrest youth diversions through Florida’s civil citation program alone resulted in an estimated five-year taxpayers’ savings of $70 to $220 million.

Unfortunately, the diversion rate among Black youth in Florida has historically been lower than the rate among white youth. In fiscal year 2017-2018, Black youth were 30 percent less likely to be diverted than their white peers and 310 percent more likely to be arrested. This is even more alarming considering that national data suggests little evidence of a racial difference in delinquency rates for the most common youth offenses—property and drug-related crimes. And prior research in Florida suggests lower rates of diversion often remain even when considering offense severity and other factors.

Racial disparities in youth diversion can occur for many reasons—large fees and transportation barriers can exclude impoverished youth from participating. Disparities can occur when implicit and explicit biases impact practitioners’ perceptions of Black youth. They also can arise when local jurisdictions fail to take full advantage of diversion opportunities like youth civil citations: In Pinellas County, roughly 99 percent of eligible youth receive an alternative to arrest, while in places like Hillsborough County only 48 percent of eligible youth benefit from the same opportunity.

Policymakers in Florida can begin to tackle this problem by mitigating barriers to participation and by making it more difficult for practitioner biases to bring about racial disparities.

To accomplish the former, local leaders can follow in the steps of State Attorney R.J. Larizza whose office indicated their intent to increase their use of youth civil citations by reforming local policy around juvenile complaint processing.

Iowa’s Scott County provides a good example of the latter: Upon recognizing clear racial disparities in charges for first-time simple misdemeanors, the county began an automatic pre-arrest diversion program in 2016 for these offenses. While in 2015, African-American children comprised 82 percent of youth formally charged for first-time simple misdemeanors in Iowa’s Seventh Judicial District, now all eligible black young people are automatically diverted pre-arrest. On top of mitigating racial disparities, they found that the young people who were diverted pre-arrest in 2018 showed recidivism rates 20 percentage points below those charged for first-time simple misdemeanors in the year prior to the policy change.

If we’re serious about solving racial inequities in our justice system, we need to ensure that Black youth in Florida have the same opportunities as white youth to be held accountable outside of the formal justice system, in a way that betters their future and public safety.


Emily Mooney is a resident fellow and the manager of criminal justice and civil liberties for the R Street Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan, public policy research organization that is engaged in policy research and outreach to promote free markets and limited, effective government. Christian Minor, the executive director of the Florida Juvenile Justice Association, contributed to this piece.


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