TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Florida is considering revamping its juvenile justice laws so fewer children end up getting arrested and locked up in juvenile detention facilities for nonviolent offenses.
Critics contend Florida's zero-tolerance school policies are sending too many students, most of them black and Hispanic, deeper into the criminal justice system than they deserve.
That was one of the main issues prompting the Dream Defenders' record, 31-day sit-in at the state Capitol this summer. They argued the so-called "school-to-prison pipeline" emphasizes incarceration over education.
State Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Wansley Walters is supporting legislation designed to prevent students from going into detention for non-violent first offenses.
Instead, they would get civil citations, helping them avoid arrest and receive intervention services.
Bob McClure of the James Madison Institute told a House committee there are better ways to deal with juveniles' petty crimes than locking them up.
"The evidence is clear that arresting kids for minor crimes and misbehavior, things that got an after-school detention or perhaps grounded for a couple of weeks back in the day, we would argue, locking them up does not enhance public safety."
McClure said more than 16,000 Florida children were arrested for the first time in the past year for misdemeanors such as petty theft and marijuana possession.
He said history shows that forcing those kids into the criminal justice system can have a very damaging impact on their futures.
Other studies show Florida now spends 30 percent more tax dollars on locking up youth offenders compared to a decade ago.
In the past, some police have opposed the use of civil citations because they wanted to continue to have the power to decide if a child should be arrested and face charges. But now more law enforcement agencies are embracing the idea of using citations and the bill's prospects are brighter.
Similar legislation proposed earlier this year failed to get a hearing in the Legislature.