Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri has proposed a promising alternative to arresting individuals for minor crimes and creating criminal records that make it harder for them to get jobs and participate in community life. Instead of launching a civil citation program for misdemeanor marijuana arrests like Tampa and other cities in Florida, Gualtieri wants to create a pre-arrest diversion program that would enable adults to avoid getting a record for a variety of low-level crimes. The Pinellas County Commission, which is set to hold a workshop on the issue Tuesday, should give the sheriff's proposal a full and fair hearing.
County commissioners decided to take on the issue of civil citations at the behest of the St. Petersburg City Council, which last year asked them to consider creating a countywide ordinance aimed at ending arrests for possession of small amounts of marijuana. The council is still debating the components of a citywide measure, but Gualtieri's proposal is a better option. Instead of issuing civil citations, the sheriff wants to create a pre-arrest diversion program. It would be modeled after the department's juvenile diversion program. Rather than arrest adults who have committed certain minor crimes, Gualtieri would put them through a diversion program. That would prevent adult offenders from having a criminal record or getting a civil citation, which would still create a record of the offense. To successfully complete the program, offenders may be required to pay a nominal fee, perform community service or submit restitution to victims.
Gualtieri's plan ably addresses what has become a nationwide call for reforming a criminal justice system that relies too heavily on incarceration, often for low-level crimes, and disproportionately affects African-Americans. The arrests create criminal records for people that can affect them for life as they seek employment, housing and loans.
A growing number of cities and counties in Florida, including Tampa, have created civil citation programs that mostly center on the possession of small amounts of marijuana. Gualtieri makes a good case for broadening that effort. Under his plan, the program would include several yet to be determined low-level crimes such as retail theft and disorderly conduct. The sheriff's proposal would allow for more even enforcement for similar offenses instead of carving out a single exemption for marijuana possession.
The sheriff also envisions a program that would mesh with the existing criminal justice system without creating new civil citations, avoiding the accompanying headache of figuring out how to administer a new program. Separately, Gualtieri makes a solid case in calling for a pre-arrest diversion system to be run by the government, rather than a private organization that could run up costs for offenders and make participation prohibitive for those with meager resources. The sheriff already has taken over the administration of misdemeanor probation services and is in a good position to serve as the lead agent for an adult pre-arrest diversion program.
A statewide pre-arrest diversion or civil citation program remains the best solution to the hodgepodge of local ordinances cropping up throughout the state. Absent that, cities and counties have come up with their own viable solutions to a crisis that needs attention now. In many cases, their efforts should be broadened to include more low-level crimes. Gualtieri's proposal seems to offer a better way forward for adults deserving of another chance. The Pinellas County Commission should work with him.