Monday, January 22, 2018
Public safety

Of manatee rides, second chances and a law on common sense

Regardless of how you feel about the crime of manatee riding — and for the record, I am firmly against it — on this we can probably agree:

What a 53-year-old woman named Ana Gloria Garcia Gutierrez did in the balmy waters off Fort De Soto Park when she was caught on camera astride a sea cow was hardly the equivalent of, say, robbing a bank.

Notable, yes. (That Woman Atop Manatee photo made CNN.) An act to be frowned upon and dealt with accordingly, sure. A teachable moment about wild things in our midst — we can only hope.

But no, she was not a suspected serial killer. So some were surprised when she was arrested at her job at Sears and jailed, that she had her mug shot taken and a bail amount set — all for a warrant on a second-degree misdemeanor charge of messing with a manatee.

Outrageous, no? Overkill, right?

In truth, people accused of low-level, nonviolent crimes — even people with no record whatsoever — are arrested and jailed in Florida every day. (An ex-police officer I know remembers people arrested on warrants for failing to have a fishing license.)

Does this make sense to you? Do first-timers accused of misdemeanors need to go to jail, to have a mug shot taken and an arrest on their record?

Then there's the part about how much it costs us taxpayers to book and process people who probably do not need to be off the streets in the name of public safety. Isn't there a better way?

Yes, as it turns out.

In the spirit of both efficiency and second chances, Florida allows a juvenile accused for the first time of a minor crime like petty larceny to get a civil citation instead of being arrested. If he does everything required — community service, restitution, apology, any treatment deemed appropriate — he avoids a record that could shadow him for the rest of his life.

Why not adults?

The Florida Smart Justice Alliance is pushing for just that. As the Times' Dan Sullivan reported, it's already in the works for police in Tallahassee and Leon County to be able to give grownup offenders tickets for minor crimes.

"The basic philosophy is in these fiscally constrained times, we can do better things with the money," says Smart Justice president Mark Flynn. A civil citation costs us $386 — compared with $5,000 for an arrest.

And apparently second chances work: Only 7 percent of kids who got tickets instead of being arrested in 2009-2010 got in trouble again within a year.

Doing the same for adults accused of, it's important to say again, specific low-level, first-time crimes seems a no-brainer. It's got something for everyone: fiscal watchdogs, idealists who believe in breaks, even zero-tolerance types, since people who don't do what's required after the ticket end up back in the system.

Local law enforcement sounds cautious on this, and they should, since keeping citizens safe is in their job description. Police, prosecutors and public defenders should put their heads together to make it work. Giving someone accused of a minor crime a way out — with an added perk of saving big bucks — sounds like common sense to me.

Not that there's much common sense in, say, deciding to ride a manatee. But that's what teachable moments — and second chances — are all about.

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