Orange County saw a dramatic drop in juvenile arrests in the past year and particularly in felony arrests of juveniles, following reforms pushed by State Attorney Aramis Ayala and implemented by the Orange County Sheriff’s Office and other law enforcement agencies.

A report released Monday by the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice shows a 19 percent overall decrease in juvenile arrests in Orange County in the 2017-’18 fiscal year and a 23 percent decline in juvenile felony arrests, the biggest decreases in the state.

Overall, Florida saw an 8 percent drop in juvenile arrests, and a 10 percent drop of felony arrests of juveniles.

The reductions in juvenile arrests come as Ayala, the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, under then-Sheriff Jerry Demings, who now is Orange County Mayor; and most city police departments, including Orlando, under then-Chief John Mina, who now is Orange County Sheriff; pushed juvenile justice programs that divert many non-violent offenders from the criminal justice system to one involving civil citations and diversion programs such as teen court, though they likely result in community service and other outcomes.

Orange County and the cities have been pursuing the programs for some time. In the spring of 2017 Ayala added another level with her “Project No/No that prevent the offenders from getting juvenile records of any sort provided they qualify for the programs and complete them.

“At the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, we have adopted a multi-pronged approach to prevent and intervene with potential juvenile offenses. The use of the juvenile civil citations and alternatives to arrest have contributed to the decrease in juvenile arrests as the agency recognizes that the objective of the juvenile justice system is rehabilitation rather than punishment,” Mina said in a written statement. “Our proactive community crime reduction efforts coupled with the well-established partnership with the numerous organizations who’s focus is to empower our youth to achieve success; is a great strategic approach to reduce juvenile delinquency in Orange County.”

Ayala’s office also cited two other factors: buy-in from law enforcement rank-and-file officers to understand the effectiveness and value of issuing civil citations instead of making arrests; and Orange County Schools taking a more active role in resolving issues without having to call in law enforcement.

Miami-Dade County, where State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle also has pushed juvenile justice diversion programs, saw the next biggest decreases in juvenile arrests.

“The decreases we are seeing in juvenile arrests are due to the collaborative efforts of our dedicated DJJ staff, law enforcement partners, and community stakeholders,” Florida Department of Juvenile Justice Interim Secretary Timothy Niermann stated in a news release. Helping young people turn around their lives for the better is what we all strive for every day, and we remain focused on investing in our youth and helping them achieve a brighter future.”

Orange County also experienced a 15 percent overall decrease in juvenile arrests in the previous fiscal year, and an 8 percent drop in juvenile felony arrests that year. The net result is that juvenile arrests are down 31 percent from the 2015-’16 fiscal year, and juvenile felony arrests are down 30 percent from that period.

“For the last several years, OPD officers have been encouraged to use juvenile civil citations in lieu of arrest in some juvenile cases. Civil citations are a great alternative if the crime is not serious and the minor takes responsibility. If officers are able to write civil citations, instead of making an arrest, it can prevent teens from having a criminal record based on one youthful mistake,” said a written statement from Orlando Police Department spokeswoman Michelle Guido. “Officers still have discretion to make an arrest but, juvenile civil citations give our officers another option to help modify illegal behavior without subjecting young people to an arrest and criminal history.

The overall reductions in arrests and felony arrests do not necessarily mean across-the-board reductions in all types of juvenile crime. For example, there was an increase in the number of juveniles arrested in Orange County for murder or manslaughter, nine in the 2018 fiscal year, compared with seven the year before.

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