ST. PETERSBURG — When Sami Hernandez was 12-years old, she was arrested for stealing an $8 bracelet from a department store.
Now, 13 years later, her criminal record is still having an impact on her life, costing her jobs and even impacting college applications and housing options.
“It’s been very challenging because I’m in the medical field. I wanted to be a doctor,” said Hernandez. “I was almost denied from college to get my certified nursing degree.”
Now Hernandez is sharing her story. She spoke Monday night at the 13th Annual “Faith and Action for Strength Together” (FAST) assembly in St. Petersburg.
The group is calling on state and local lawmakers to push for legislation which would ensure equal access to the state’s civil citation program, which allows first-time, non-violent offenders rehabilitation without the threat of an arrest on their record.
Youth who break the law could still face fines or be required to complete community service or classes, but would not be taken into custody by law enforcement.
“It just takes more push,” said Rep. Larry Ahern, who supported last year’s unsuccessful version of the bill which was blocked from a final vote. “It has to become a priority for the chamber members.”
An estimated 10,000 juveniles were arrested on first-time, non-violent offenses last year in Florida. Every candidate in attendance at the assembly Monday vowed to support the bill in favor of rehabilitation instead of arrest.
“People overwhelmingly supported this in my district,” said Jennifer Webb, who is running for state representative.
“As much as they supported this they were also tired of the private prison industry and siphoning our resources into private prisons.”
Some blame lobbyists from the private prison industry for trying to derail the bill. Hernandez says the issue is one lawmakers can no longer ignore.
“Pass this bill,” pleaded Hernandez. “These kids need help. They are our future. Locking them up isn’t going to help them.
“Branding them, scarring them for life, isn’t going to help them.”