People make mistakes. They do stupid things. Sometimes, they make bad choices because they are down on their luck and don’t feel they have another option.
But it is important to realize there is a big difference between people who do bad things to purposefully hurt others and good people who make an error in judgment because they are young, immature, or in a bad situation.
In Pinellas County, time and again, we see people make mistakes, get convicted, serve time or pay large fines, and ultimately, leave with criminal records that haunt them all their lives. This is especially true today due to the ready availability of information from websites, like those that provide mugshots regardless of the offense.
After much discussion and planning, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office has decided that simply because people do something wrong doesn’t necessarily mean they should be saddled with undue repercussions the rest of their lives. In October, we initiated an Adult Pre-Arrest Diversion program that aims to prevent small errors from keeping people from getting a job or stable housing.
The program’s most important aspect is its provision of an alternative to making an arrest for law enforcement. Instead, if a person meets certain criteria, he/she can avoid a police record, stay out of the criminal justice system, and modify future behavior, while lessening the number of people filling our jails and prisons.
The criteria that must be met are critically important. The person must take responsibility for his/her actions, agree to make restitution to any applicable victims, and present no risk to others. Additionally, the person cannot have a misdemeanor conviction two years prior or a felony conviction five years prior. A person is not eligible if he/she has gone through the diversion program within the previous three months and can go through it only three times in his/her lifetime.
We looked closely at our misdemeanor laws and narrowed them down to the following offenses eligible for the program:
People who are diverted into this program must report within 48 hours, at which time they are screened, placed in a program for issues like anger management or substance abuse, and required to perform community service. Anyone who fails to comply with the rules is ineligible to participate in the program in the future.
To be clear, this is not a step toward legalizing marijuana for recreational use. The laws remain very firm on that subject. It is, instead, an effort to treat crime equitably while giving deserving people another chance.
Through the Adult Pre-Arrest Diversion program, the county avoids over-utilizing the expensive and time-consuming criminal justice system and processes, while broaching the broader issue: separation of recidivists and criminals from immature youth. There is a difference, and this is an important step toward tackling the discrepancy.
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