TAMPA — Jamie Stewart still doesn’t know why she did it.
Last month, the 26-year-old pregnant mother of two found herself in the cosmetics aisle of a Brandon Walmart. She slipped some nail polish into her bag, then went to a register, paid for some other items and tried to leave.
Moments later, she was face to face with a Hillsborough County sheriff’s deputy, wondering how she would explain her arrest to her family and boss. But then the deputy explained that a new program for first-time offenders like her would allow her to avoid an arrest.
"My life could have gone down the drain for something stupid I decided to do," Stewart said.
Starting today, many adults like Stewart facing arrest for minor crimes in Hillsborough County may avoid a trip to jail and a blemish on their records.
Hillsborough County officials on Wednesday announced the countywide launch of the Adult Pre-Arrest Diversion Program, created for offenders who would otherwise be charged with misdemeanors such as drug possession or shoplifting.
The goal, officials say, is to avoid saddling people with a criminal record and further clogging the criminal justice system.
"The reality is, people make mistakes," Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister said. "By providing this opportunity for nonviolent misdemeanor offenders, these adults within our community will be able to maintain gainful employment, provide for their families and remain productive citizens without being saddled with a criminal record."
The Sheriff’s Office launched the program in pilot form in July. Now, every law enforcement agency in the county will participate, including police departments in Tampa, Plant City, Temple Terrace and at the University of South Florida and Tampa International Airport.
Pinellas County launched its own APAD program in October 2016. Officials there have called it a success, with 1,851 participants logged in through last week.
Hillsborough’s program is available for all but 17 misdemeanor offenses or county ordinances. The exceptions include battery, driving under the influence and lewd and lascivious acts.
Before making an arrest, law enforcement officers in the field check a suspect’s criminal record to make sure they’re eligible. Participants must have no prior DUI conviction, no previous felony arrests and no misdemeanor arrests in the prior two years.
They are not eligible if they have already participated in the APAD within the previous two years or more than twice in their lives. People who live outside the county are eligible.
Those who qualify must register for the program within three business days of their arrest and complete the requirements within 120 days. Requirements vary by offense, but all participants must complete 16 hours of community service. Other potential requirements include restitution, a letter of apology to the victim and completion of educational courses such as anger management or substance-abuse awareness.
If the offender does not complete the requirements, authorities could issue a warrant for the original charge. If an offender is arrested again while in the program, the original case will be sent to the Hillsborough County State Attorney’s Office for review.
During the pilot program, 215 adults participated and 112 of them, or 52 percent, successfully completed the program, according to the Sheriff’s Office. Of the total, 37 cases, or 17 percent, were referred to the State Attorney’s Office, and 66 participants are still active in the program.
A "large majority" of the pilot cases involved misdemeanor marijuana possession, with shoplifting offenses "running a close second," Chronister said.
Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren and Public Defender Julianne Holt said the program will free up resources in their offices to focus on more serious offenders.
Holt said she was excited for would-be defendants who won’t be burdened with the financial toll and societal stigma that comes with even minor arrests. Now, she said, these offenders won’t have an online mug shot lingering for the rest of their lives.
Stewart, the mother caught shoplifting, is now free and clear. And thankful.
By the end of January, she had completed her community service and a four-hour online course on theft.
"I feel like I have a second chance at life."
Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.