Leaders, Corey meet on teen punishment

Program used to divert kids from going to jail

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – When is a classroom fight just a fight, and when should it be considered battery and warrant criminal charges?

It's a question school administrators and prosecutors are having a tough time seeing eye-to-eye on.

Duval County Public Schools Superintendant Nikolai Vitti, state Rep. Mia Jones and state Sen. Audrey Gibson all sat down with State Attorney Angela Corey on Monday to address the issue.

Jacksonville's Civil Citation program tries to divert kids from going to jail by putting teenagers in teen court and offering alternatives. Local leaders asked Corey if this program is being used enough in Jacksonville.

Corey used a fight that occurred at Baldwin Middle Senior High School earlier this year as an example of when criminal charges are necessary for students in the classroom. But Jones and Gibson are pointing to other cases where the fights were nowhere near as violent, but still the students were charged criminally.

Local leaders say a diversion program rather than prosecution may have helped in these cases. They asked the state attorney to reconsider the way her office approaches juvenile civil citations, especially simple battery cases, which can end up on a teenager's criminal record for years.

Corey said the method of diverting teenagers is something her office has been practicing for years.

"Well, we don't consider diversion a break from prosecution, we consider diversion an appropriate law enforcement prosecution tool to use when a child or even an adult commits a crime that we believe would be better served by putting them into some kind of services to see what they need," Corey said. "If they need mental health counseling, if they need to make restitution."

Vitti said the purpose of Monday's meeting was to understand Corey's position on the issue, especially after hearing from parents up in arms in the community. Vitti said he wants to make sure prosecutors look at the level of the fight and the extent of the fight before deciding whether or not criminal charges are really warranted.

The civil citation program is being embraced by local law enforcement. It began in May of last year, and so far more than 200 teenagers have been diverted to the program and back to the classroom rather than the criminal justice system.

About the Author: