Mayor Kriseman and Chief Holloway unveil new diversion program

BY FRANK DROUZAS Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG — With the launch of a new city diversion program, kids in St. Pete will be getting a second chance.

A collaborative effort among the city, the police department, the Parks and Recreation department and the juvenile justice system, the Second Chance program aims to allow youngsters who have committed offenses to keep their records clean.

“Our work at city hall is really very simple: we have been entrusted to help shape the future of this wonderful city, to build a city of opportunity,” Kriseman stated at a press conference on March 30. “And never is the work of building that city more important than when it comes to our youngest citizens, the children of our community. I am pleased to take an important step forward on that journey today with the introduction of the Second Chance Program.”

Unfortunately, the list of experiences that determine our children’s futures sometimes includes the criminal justice system and the need for second chances, the mayor explained, adding that more than 1,400 juveniles were arrested for misdemeanors in St. Pete last year.

“That number is staggering,” he stressed. “It’s a staggering statistic that illustrates a need for a different approach to juvenile justice in our city, a different approach to our children who need to be redirected onto a different path.”

Police Chief Anthony Holloway explained that the program targets children between the ages of 9 and 17 who commit misdemeanors. Under the new program, young offenders will no longer be taken to a juvenile assessment center, but will sign up to work for Parks and Recreation.

“They’re going to clean up our parks, they’re going to clean up the area,” Holloway said.  “They’re going to do that for six hours and after that we’re going to give them counseling for two hours. If the child completes that program, he or she will not get a record. It is done with.”

The chief pointed out that if offenders do not complete the program or decide they don’t want to take that option, they can be referred to the sheriff’s office and go through the sheriff’s diversion program.

“The biggest thing about this program is it’s immediate,” Holloway said. “Usually when the kids get involved in the court system, it may be a month before they see a judge. You commit a crime today, you’re going to get something within the next four days so we can get you right back on track.”

Young people who commit felonies and violations dealing with firearms, domestic violence and those that require restitution are not eligible for the program, Holloway explained. He said at the very outset of the program when he met with Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, the sheriff expressed that he wanted to see this program adopted countywide.

The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office has operated a very successful juvenile diversion program for over 15 years, Gualtieri said, and thousands of kids have come through that program with a very low recidivism rate.

“Diversion works,” he said. “Kids do make mistakes, they have that bump in the road and it shouldn’t be held over their heads for the rest of their lives to prevent them for going into the military, getting jobs, getting an education, etc.”

Kriseman explained that as he campaigned for mayor, he was aware that the city’s numbers around juvenile arrests were “unacceptably high.” He also knew that there was a need to not only change those numbers but impact the causes that drive them to be so high.

“It was important for me as mayor to forge a juvenile justice path that focuses on productivity and progress as much as it focuses on punishment,” he affirmed.

One of the first charges he gave to police Chief Holloway, the mayor said, was to formalize a plan that would make the priority of an alternative to misdemeanor juvenile arrest records a reality. Early intervention that combines second chances with structured consequences can change a child’s future, and successful redirection of misdemeanor criminal activity will help create a safer community and contribute to a healthier community and economy, Kriseman said.

For the program the mayor enlisted the help of Mike Jefferis, director of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department. The program is a realistic approach that allows for second chances without compromising the seriousness of illegal activity and the accountability and consequences that must always accompany such choices, he pointed out.

Jefferis explained that the program was designed with four key components in mind: accessibility, meaningful and impactful service, interaction with social workers and interaction with adults who care. For ease of accessibility, there are four locations spread throughout the city that the participants can be picked up from and driven to the work site, Jefferis said. For impactful service, some of the jobs lined up for participants include cleaning up nature preserves such as Clam Bayou and removing invasive exotic plants in Boyd Hill.

“This is not a field trip, this is not a day at the rec center, this is hard work,” Jefferis stressed.

Since they will be working with a wide age range of participants, the tasks that each child is assigned will be age appropriate, he said. Licensed social workers will be on site every Saturday. One goal of the Parks and Recreation Department is to engage the children and provide programs and options for them, which might feature free tutoring, sports, art, or whatever a particular child may be interested in.

“If this is truly a diversion program,” Jefferis stated, “we’re not talking about criminals here, were taking about children that have made a mistake.  And none of us have never made a mistake as we’ve grown up. The difference these days is that we have databases and electronic filing systems that track it for the rest of your life.”

Councilman Wengay Newton is a strong advocate of raising more funds for some of the city’s youth programs.

“What’s going to happen is that now these kids are not being arrested, they’ll be able to participate in the job programs that we have that require a clean background. Unfortunately, we don’t have enough jobs there for those kids,” he said, adding that there are more than 1,000 kids applying to these jobs and only about 140 can participate.

City parks worker Torrance Keaton, 35, was on hand to speak about how the city helped him shake his criminal pass and become a productive citizen. He explained that he was once a troubled teen selling drugs, but got a second chance when offered temporary work with TASCO, a job program for teens through the city.

“I took the second chance,” he said after contemplating his life while lying in bed after taking a bullet.

“A lot of kids in my neighborhood look up to me, they say, ‘Man how you got a nice car, how you got a house? Are you still selling drugs?’”

Keaton, who has worked with the city for 10 years, never misses a chance to let the younger generation know that they too can have a legitimate job and stay off the streets.

“This program is a good program, a second opportunity. We need this in life,” he said as he choked back the tears.

To reach Frank Drouzas, email fdrouzas@theweeklychallenger.com

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