From the pulpit of Mount Bethel Baptist, Broward Sheriff Scott Israel preached a short message last Sunday that the congregants hadn't heard before: We're going to stop arresting so many teenagers in this county.
"We have to measure our success by the amount of kids we keep out of jail, not the amount of kids we put in jail," Israel said, and the congregation broke into applause. "We can't let one speed bump or one hiccup in life preclude them from getting a job."
The Broward Sheriff's Office civil citation program, one of the planks of Israel's election campaign last year, is now in full swing — bringing a surge in citations and a resulting decline in juvenile arrests, according to BSO data.
Issuing civil citations as a way to address misbehaving children without cuffing them, sending them instead to counseling and a sentence of community services, is a law enforcement option spelled out in state law.
Israel made it mandatory policy for BSO deputies as of January.
The change comes amid a countywide movement — at public schools and in other law enforcement agencies — to reduce the number of children arrested for minor crimes.
Under the civil citation program, if a teen with a clean background commits a nonviolent misdemeanor, there will be no arrest. The diversionary program includes up to 50 hours of community service, and draws the parents in for counseling, as well.
After the child completes the program, Israel told the church congregants Sunday, "that child can now treat this incident as if it never happened."
At Mount Bethel, a prominent church in the black community, the crowd applauded. The majority of children arrested by BSO are black boys, the sheriff said.
"It's a chance to keep our kids out of the juvenile justice system, so that's good," said Veronica Jackson, after Sunday's church service. "I have my other ideas about kids that are just out there, repeat offenders. I think they should be dealt with. But first offense, misdemeanor — by all means, give them a chance to go through the program and make the parents accountable, absolutely."
In the first half of the year, 1,039 kids were arrested by deputies, according to Robert Pusins, executive director of BSO's Department of Community Services. That's a 23 percent decrease from the 1,350 arrested in the same period last year.
At the same time, the issuing of civil citations is on the rise. Deputies cited 196 kids in the first eight months of the year, quadruple the rate of last year, when 68 were issued during all of 2012.
Those cited this year include a 13-year-old carrying a concealed weapon, a 12-year-old accused of battery, a 14-year-old caught in a petty theft, and a 12-year-old who pulled a fire alarm. Forty-eight of the kids, ages 13 to 17, were found with marijuana on them, BSO records show.
"We don't want to be chasing them for the rest of our lives,'' said Israel, who believes diverting them early will help.
The idea is sweeping the county.
Police chiefs across Broward have agreed to make the civil citation program mandatory in their cities, and are working with the Broward State Attorney's Office on uniform procedures, State Attorney Michael Satz said. Satz, whose office supports the civil citation program, convened a meeting of police chiefs in recent months to work toward implementing a mandatory countywide policy.
"It's a no-brainer," Satz said. "I think everybody agrees it's a no-brainer. Let's handle it consistently. Let's make it mandatory. ... We want everybody to be consistent and every child to have the same opportunity, whether it's Parkland or Coral Springs."
Fort Lauderdale is ahead of the group, having mandated civil citations two years ago, Police Chief Frank Adderley said.
He said it's too early to tell whether it's making a strong difference in turning around youth, but it's an idea the community and the NAACP strongly support.
"The idea here is to prevent the kid from being a repeat offender," he said. "Once you complete it, it's like the arrest never happened. Then, 15 years from now when they apply for college or for a job and it says, 'Have you ever been arrested before?' they can honestly say, 'No'. It doesn't constitute an arrest."
The Broward schools also are onboard, instituting a new program this year called "PROMISE," said Maria Schneider, assistant state attorney in charge of the juvenile division. Students who commit any of the identified misdemeanors — including possession of marijuana, involvement in a fight or disorderly conduct — will not be referred to law enforcement until the third violation.
"It's definitely going to reduce school-based arrests," she said. "I think it's going to have an immediate impact."
The line between qualifying for a civil citation and ending up in a squad car is thin, though.
A child who steals a $290 cellphone has committed a misdemeanor and is eligible for a civil citation to avoid arrest. A kid who steals an iPad, or anything else worth more than $300, has committed a felony.
For the youth who actually get arrested, Schneider said, there's still an opportunity to divert charges. Her office diverts a third of the juveniles to programs including community service and counseling.
"I do believe in personal responsibility," she said. "I do believe there should be a consequence. But we should not leave a thumbprint that should last forever."
At the State Attorney's Office, studies showed that more than 90 percent of the kids diverted from formal charges avoided arrest over the next year, the period when re-offending is typically most likely, Schneider said.
She has joined efforts to make the diversionary program a countywide policy.
There is a hitch, however: Police chiefs have agreed that if an officer can't find a parent or guardian to release the child to, the child would be taken to the Juvenile Assessment Center to wait for an adult.
Israel is concerned his agency will be burdened with overseeing too many kids at the center, which is operated by BSO. Satz plans to meet with the sheriff on the issue, saying it's a sticking point that threatens to derail the countywide civil citation program.
Israel said he won't let it be derailed.
"Are we going to handle it? Yes," Israel said. "But we're hoping everybody's vigilant and works as hard as they could and not use it as a drop-off point."
Pusins, at BSO, said that although law enforcement is giving a child an opportunity, the measure of success for programs like this can be "nebulous."