TALLAHASSEE — Law enforcement officials from Tallahassee and surrounding Leon County announced Wednesday that they'll be the first Florida jurisdictions to adopt civil citations as an alternative to arresting adults for first offenses of minor, nonviolent crimes.
The Florida Smart Justice Alliance, a recently formed coalition that promotes changes in the criminal justice system, helped put the plan together and will try to spread the concept across the state. The initiative also is endorsed by local prosecutors, public defenders and judges.
As long as 17 years ago, Florida jurisdictions began using civil citations as alternatives to arresting juveniles, most commonly for marijuana possession and petty theft.
Its advocates say the program will save taxpayers money by reducing the number of people going to jail and court and preventing repeat offenses, the kind of changes the alliance was created to encourage.
The citations also spare first-time offenders from getting jail time, although there are other penalties, as well as a criminal record that would follow them around for the rest of their lives.
Individual law enforcement officers will have case-by-case discretion on who gets a citation and who gets arrested.
They already do that every day, whether it's deciding to give a speeding motorist a ticket or let the driver off with a warning, or arresting a juvenile offender as opposed to turning him over to his parents, Leon County Sheriff Larry Campbell said.
"Half of law enforcement is discretion," Campbell said at a news conference. "Do you give them a chance? Do you call Momma and say this is what the kid did? So many times the punishment at home is far worse than the punishment that we're going to give them, except we're going to give them that record."
Tallahassee police Chief Dennis Jones acknowledged someone with a bad attitude might be more likely to get arrested, while a cooperative offender receives a civil citation for the same violation.
"Officers are human," Jones said. But, he added, "It's a good option for law enforcement. … Arrest should be our last tool, regardless."
Those cited must undergo an assessment, perform a minimum of 25 hours of community service and get treatment for underlying causes of their crime such as substance abuse, anger or gambling.
Offenders also must pay all costs of the program and will face arrest if they fail to meet any of its conditions.