Despite the failure of a bill that would have helped minors with felonies expunge their records, lawmakers and others continue to fight for legislation they say would aim to reform the juvenile justice system in Florida.
SBB 966, proposed by State Sen. Keith Perry (R-Gainesville), would have allowed juveniles charged with felony offenses to take part in diversionary programs that would expunge their records following completion. However, the bill did not make it past committee and died on March 5.
A diversionary program is a rehabilitation program offered by the court to juveniles charged with misdemeanor offenses. These programs are run by police departments, courts, a district attorney’s office or outside agencies.
Jeffrey Weiner, a criminal defense lawyer in Miami, explained how the bill would have benefited those with juvenile felonies expunge their records and live unburdened by a conviction that would prevent them from getting into college or finding a job.
“Before the law said, if a juvenile charged with a misdemeanor completes the diversionary program their record can be expunged and they never have to acknowledge they were found guilty or that they were arrested or anything of that nature,” he said. “The new bill increases the benefits to those who’ve committed a felony.”
Morgan Kinley, Perry’s legislative assistant, said the bill died because the first sub-committee never reviewed the legislation.
“It was referred to the committee,” she said. “But it was never put on the agenda.”
Under Florida law, individuals charged with committing a felony offense as minors are excluded from entering diversionary programs. Only individuals charged with misdemeanors have the option to complete a diversionary program and have their records expunged. If they enter the program, however, they only get one chance.
Christian Minor, the executive director of the Florida Juvenile Justice Department, said this is problematic because creates difficulties for kids with felony charges later on in life.
“When these kids are charged with a felony it stays on their record,” he said. “It hurts their opportunity to serve in the military, getting into college and buying a house.”
Damien Duncan, 22, was charged at 16 with felony aggravated assault with a firearm. He has since turned his life around, becoming a mentor to youths in diversionary programs, but has had trouble keeping a job.
“Recently, my brother was in a construction site and he put me to work on that and I was doing good,” he said. “Then I get a text from the guy who gave me the job telling me not to come back to the sight because they had done a background check.”
Duncan said he wants to work and that he is no longer the troubled young kid that made a costly mistake all those years ago.
“For them to tell me not to come back because of this and bring back my past is not right,” he said. “I’m just trying to move forward.”
Duncan was arrested last year for cannabis possession, but said the case was dismissed.
Weiner said Duncan’s issues are not uncommon because juvenile records are seldom kept confidential.
“Very often these juvenile records are sent to computerized law enforcement services that keep track of people’s arrest,” he said. “And as a result they leak out all the time and the computers are hacked.”
Duncan said he and others like him find there are few options available when they finish their sentences.
“You get out and now you have to get your life back together,” he said. “There are opportunities, don’t get me wrong, like getting a trade, but some people want to go back to school and branch out, but this holds them back.”
Colleen Adams, founder and executive director of Empowered Youth, a non- profit diversionary program, was disappointed to hear of the bill’s failure, saying many of the kids she’s worked with, including Duncan, deserve a chance to redeem themselves.
“The young men that I know are good kids in really tough circumstances,” she said. “It is really unconscionable that they would be saddled and encumbered with that mistake all throughout their lives.”
Although the bill did not move past the House, Minor said he has hopes that the language contained within SB 966 might still be added to other legislation.
“I don’t believe it’s completely killed,” he said. “There’s an opportunity to include the language on other bills. I think there’s a favorable appetite for this type of legislation.”
Minor said he is in support of bills like SB 406 which would increase the threshold for what is considered felony theft.
Minor said SB 406 has bipartisan support and the willingness for both chambers to work on this legislation is proof that juvenile justice reform is a bi-partisan issue in Florida.
“It’s all about helping these kids and giving them second chances,” he said. “I think everyone understands the need for legislation like this.”