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 bad people who do bad things that hurt people and good people who make an error in judgment because they are young and immature or just find themselves in a bad spot.
Here in Pinellas County, Florida, time and again we see people making these mistakes, getting convicted, serving time or paying large fines and ultimately, leaving themselves with criminal records that will often haunt them for much or all of their lives. Given how information today is so readily available, that statement really is true. There are even websites now where anyone can locate a person’s mugshot for what in some cases is really just a petty offense.
After a lot of talking and planning, we have decided that in our county, just because people do something wrong doesn’t mean they all should be saddled with an undue weight for the remainder of their days. In October, we started an Adult Pre-Arrest Diversion program aimed at preventing these sorts of errors from keeping people from getting a job or stable housing.
The most important aspect of our program is it provides law enforcement an alternative option to having to make arrests. Instead, as long as a person meets certain criteria, they can avoid a police record, stay out of the criminal justice system, and modify future behavior, all the 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 their actions, agree to make restitutions to any applicable victims, and not present a risk to others. Additionally, to be eligible, the person must not have a prior misdemeanor conviction in the past two years or a prior felony conviction in the previous five years. A person also is not eligible if they have gone through the diversion program within the previous three months and can only go through it a total of three times.
We looked closely at our misdemeanor laws and narrowed them down to the following offenses eligible for the program:
- Marijuana possession of 10 grams or less
- Possession of marijuana paraphernalia
- Possession of alcohol under the age of 21
- Petit theft or retail theft of $300 or under
- Misdemeanor criminal mischief
- Misdemeanor assault (unless it is domestic-related)
- Misdemeanor battery with no or very minor injuries (unless it is domestic-related)
People who are diverted into this program must report within 48 hours, where they will be screened by staff, placed in a program (for such things as anger management or substance abuse), and be required to do community service. Anyone who fails to comply with the program will be ineligible to participate in it in the future.
The program, which is being funded through our sheriff’s office budget, is expected to cost $360,000 annually. None of the incorporated cities will be billed.
I want to make it clear that this is not a step toward legalizing marijuana for recreational use. Our laws remain very firm on that subject. It is instead an effort to treat crime equitably while still giving the people who deserve it another chance.
A key part of this diversion program has been the unified effort being undertaken throughout our county. One of the main reasons I believed that this diversion program was necessary stemmed from the fact that city councils around the state of Florida were taking steps to pass ordinances that took what was a crime under state law and made it a state citation.
Once it started being discussed in some of the communities in our county, I realized we needed a uniformed strategy to tackle this because it is unfair to have a person arrested for a crime simply because of where it took place when someone committing the same offense just a few miles away received only a citation.
With this program, you get from A-to-Z without going through the extensive and time consuming process that is the criminal justice system. The broader point is we need to deal differently with recidivists and criminals who don’t get it vs. what we do with people who are young and just made a bad decision to do an isolated thing that is bad.
There is a difference. This is an important step towards tackling the discrepancy.
To watch Sheriff Gualtieri’s presentation on the program to officials in St. Petersburgh, Florida, click the link here and start at the 2:06 mark.
Bob Gualtieri has been the Pinellas County Sheriff since November 2011. Sheriff Gualtieri began his career with the Sheriff’s Office over 30 years ago and has served in many different capacities. He began his law enforcement career in 1982 when he joined the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office as a detention deputy working in the County Jail. He then worked for the Dunedin Police Department before returning to the Sheriff’s Office in 2006.
Sheriff Gualtieri earned a Bachelor’s degree with high honors from Eckerd College. In 1998, he left the Sheriff’s Office to attend Stetson University College of Law, from which he graduated cum laude. After graduating from law school, Sheriff Gualtieri entered private law practice with a firm in Tampa where he represented employers in labor and employment law litigation.