Antonio made a bad decision, the kind of bad decision 16-year-old boys, in the throes of surging hormones and peer pressure and a desire for stuff they can't afford, make all the time, the kind in which no one gets hurt, but could nonetheless have far-reaching consequences.
On April 18, between the racks in a local Walmart, Antonio threaded a belt through the loop of his slacks, then walked over to the electronics section and donned a pair of headphones. His 14-year-old cousin swiped a pair of headphones, too.
The shy, spindly Antonio — a boy with the openness and vulnerability of a child, not a criminal — needed a belt, and had already spent his money on sneakers. So he just took it.
Walmart security nabbed the pair as they walked out the door. In the security office, they confessed. And when officers from the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office arrived, the Walmart security officials recommended they be issued civil citations, not arrested. They wouldn't have their mug shots snapped and fingerprints taken. They wouldn't have to live the rest of their lives with this bad decision on their records, there whenever they apply for scholarships, try to join the military or seek a job. They would, however, have to appear before a neighborhood accountability board, which would determine their punishment.
Walmart's act of mercy put Antonio among the several hundred youths who so far this year have committed first-time misdemeanors in the Fourth Judicial Circuit — a broad swath comprising Duval, Clay and Nassau counties that includes three county sheriffs' offices, seven municipal police departments and Duval County's school police — and were slapped with citations instead of handcuffs. Instead of heading to juvie for processing, Antonio got to go home to his grandmother, where he had some explaining to do.
"He cried when he told me," says his grandmother, Jackie, who has raised him since he was 8.
When Antonio and his grandmother appeared a few weeks later for a hearing before the neighborhood board, the teen apologized publicly in a barely audible voice to his grandmother for embarrassing her and thanked the board for the opportunity to avoid juvenile detention.
During the hearing, Antonio's eyes welled when he spoke of his mother, a chronic drug user and prostitute who handed her kids over to their grandmother eight years ago. Shortly before the shoplifting incident, Antonio's mother had promised him she was quitting drugs and would get a legitimate job and reclaim her kids. Almost immediately afterward, she was arrested again. Maybe, Jackie wondered, he was acting out.
"I noticed the tears in your eyes when you talked about your mama," Teen Court director Lawrence Hills, who chairs community hearings on civil citations in the Ribault High School area of Jacksonville, told Antonio. "If there's anything, for all of us, that will do that, it's definitely your mama."
The board ordered Antonio to serve on the Teen Court jury, volunteer at the Clara White Mission, go to counseling, complete a workbook on shoplifting and the law, and write a two-page essay on how to set a better example for his younger brother and sister. He was also required to write a poem based on Tupac Shakur's song "Dear Mama," to express his feelings toward his mom.
This is, to Hills' mind, an ideal outcome — a punishment both befitting the crime and offering Antonio a chance to mature and grow. And, he adds, civil citations work: 92 percent of the kids Hills has ushered through the process complete the requirements, and 91 percent are not re-arrested in the following year. Statewide, juveniles issued civil citations have a 4 percent recidivism rate, according to the Department of Juvenile Justice — the best rate for any DJJ program.
"We are not returning a whole lot of kids into the system," Hills says.
And that, after all, is the goal.