In Florida’s short legislative session, lawmakers are often bombarded with requests from powerful special interests and asked to grapple with the major headline-grabbing issues of the day, like the economy or COVID-19 response. While these are critically important, it can be easy to forget about the small people: youths.

For years, juvenile justice hasn’t received the attention it needs. In fact, Florida is left with a system that doesn’t always prioritize rehabilitation or redemption. However, thanks in part to Rep. David Smith (R-28), juvenile justice issues may take center stage—efforts that are long overdue.

As it stands, many Florida residents who have been arrested can access diversion programs, which are pretrial intervention programs aimed at rehabilitating the accused. If they complete the programming, the state often drops their first-time charges. What’s more, Florida law requires the Department of Law Enforcement to expunge the nonjudicial records of misdemeanor arrests, if the juveniles in question successfully complete diversion programs in response to their arrests.

These are great approaches to improving the criminal justice system. They incentivize youths to participate in rehabilitative programming, which can ultimately result in keeping their criminal records clean. They can even have their arrests wiped from the records. This is incredibly important, given that such records can change the trajectory of a youth’s life for the worse. In fact, a juvenile record can in some cases prevent youths from obtaining financial aid for college, joining the military or even getting a job, and criminal records are associated with higher recidivism rates—harming public safety.

While the current statutes provide some second chances and opportunities for improvement, they are also highly restrictive. Under current law, not all nonjudicial arrest records are exempt from public record, and juveniles accused of felonies cannot have their nonjudicial arrest record removed upon the completion of a diversion program.

In response, Rep. Smith introduced HB 93 and HB 95, which have been quietly navigating the legislative process, and not a moment too soon. “House Bill 93 remove[s] the requirement that limits diversion program expunction to misdemeanor offenses,” Florida’s No Place for a Child Coalition wrote in an email, “and House Bill 95 provides an exemption from public records requirements when a minor is arrested but did not face criminal charges and successfully completed a diversion program.”

This would greatly expand second chances for youths, who desperately need them, and improve their behavior—leading to reduced crime and consequently, costing the justice system far less. Further, this could help begin to reverse inequities within the criminal justice system. After all, according to 2019 national data, there are identifiable racial disparities among felony juvenile arrests. What’s more, there’s certainly a degree of inequity, given that the wealthy and the underprivileged have vastly different experiences in the criminal justice system.

Regardless of wealth or race, youths should be fairly provided opportunities for rehabilitation. In fact, the science demonstrates that they ought to be afforded these chances, considering that they lack a degree of culpability for their alleged crimes. Research has proven that juveniles’ brains aren’t fully developed. As a result, they are prone to impulsive and aggressive behavior, and unlike mature adults, they are unable to process their actions’ consequences quickly and adequately. Over time, their brains will mature, but cognitively, juveniles remain children and ought to be treated as such.

For too long, Florida has hamstrung kids with such records and opportunities for self-improvement have often remained out of reach. Florida lawmakers should strive to do better, and they have a chance to do so. “House bills 93 and 95 are key pieces of legislation that can help kids achieve this by keeping them out of the criminal justice system and allowing them to learn from their mistakes,” Carrie Boyd from the No Place for a Child Coalition said, “I can think of no better way of supporting our youth than to give them an opportunity to learn and grow from their mistakes so that they can still go to college and get jobs, which would not be available to them with a criminal record.”

Despite juggling so many different critical issues, it’s great to see Florida lawmakers focusing on the small people.

Image credit: corgarashu