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St. Petersburg joins Pinellas sheriff's ambitious criminal justice reform program

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, seen here at a 2014 news conference, met with the St. Petersburg City Council on Thursday. They agreed to support the sheriff's new countywide adult diversion program that would steer low-level offenders away from a criminal record. St. Petersburg was the last municipality in Pinellas County to join the program. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD] 
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Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, seen here at a 2014 news conference, met with the St. Petersburg City Council on Thursday. They agreed to support the sheriff's new countywide adult diversion program that would steer low-level offenders away from a criminal record. St. Petersburg was the last municipality in Pinellas County to join the program. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD] .

ST. PETERSBURG — Pinellas County will soon launch one of the most ambitious criminal justice reforms in Tampa Bay.

Under the new Adult Pre-Arrest Diversion program, offenders who commit minor crimes such as underage possession of alcohol, petty theft and possession of marijuana will have 48 hours to report to the program and will complete community service hours instead of getting arrested.

The initiative is expected to decrease jail bookings and lessen the burden on the courts system.

More importantly, officials say it will keep people who commit a range of petty crimes from earning a criminal record that could forever haunt them, tainting their chances of holding a job or finding a place to live.

On Thursday, the largest city in the county agreed to join the program. The St. Petersburg City Council voted to support the program after being briefed by Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who is leading the effort.

St. Petersburg was Pinellas' last municipality to buy-in.

"It's the right thing to do for the residents of this county," Gualtieri said. "It's very important that this be fair, consistent, and that everybody has equal access to it."

The program could start as soon as October. Pinellas will join a small but growing list of regions across the country that have launched pre-arrest programs as the criminal justice system explores lenient alternatives for low-level offenders.

Pinellas' reforms are far ahead of the rest of Tampa Bay area. Gualtieri's initiative goes beyond the Tampa Police Department program that allows people caught with small amounts of marijuana to avoid jail. The Sheriff's Offices in Hillsborough and Hernando counties say they're not currently contemplating similar actions.

Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco said in a statement that Gualtieri's proposal "sounds intriguing" and he would reach out to Pinellas to learn more.

During Thursday's meeting, Gualtieri provided an overview of the APAD program:

• Offenders who don't have a prior misdemeanor conviction within the last two years or a felony conviction within the last five years will qualify. They can participate in APAD, which will be run by the Sheriff's Office, up to three times.

• The range of charges include underage possession of alcohol, petty theft, criminal mischief, littering, possession of marijuana paraphernalia, and assault and battery offenses not related to domestic violence. It will also include possession of marijuana of up to 10 grams, or up to 20 grams if the officer can determine that the marijuana was not intended for sale.

• Offenders who receive an APAD referral from an officer have 48 hours to report to the program's office, which will be open 24 hours a day. If they don't show up, charges will be forwarded to the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office.

• Offenders will undergo a "basic risk assessment" to determine if they need additional services, like anger management or drug treatment. They will be required to complete community service hours and could pay restitution.

• The program also provides a system of checks and balances. APAD staff will screen offenders taken to the jail to ensure they aren't eligible. They will also check with the clerk's office daily to determine if anyone who received a criminal notice to appear should receive a diversion referral instead.

• The program, which will cost $360,000 annually from the sheriff's budget, does not require the approval of any city or county governments. Instead, the sheriff, the police chiefs and the state attorney will sign a memorandum of understanding. They could also agree on future improvements.

Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch and St. Petersburg Police Chief Tony Holloway gave the program their support at Thursday's council meeting.

The city council also heard from some residents, including St. Pete for Justice organizer Kofi Hunt. Though he supports the decriminalization of marijuana, Hunt said APAD is a step in the right direction.

"You're doing the best you can," he told city council. "I think this alleviates some of the current issues that we face historically with systemic racism."

St. Petersburg City Council had previously discussed civil citations for the first three offenses of 20 grams or less of marijuana. But council members voted to delay those talks earlier this year so they could consider Gualtieri's proposal.

Gualtieri voiced concerns over the potential of having a "hodge podge of laws" in the county that he said would be unfair to residents.

Council member Ed Montanari agreed.

"I'm much more confident with this diversion program than I was with the civil citation route," Montanari said. "It could really get confusing if you have somebody do something in one part of the county, and then go just a block or two away and you're in another city and the laws are different."

Some council members raised questions about how residents in St. Petersburg without a means of transportation would reach the Sheriff's Office within the 48-hour period. Gualtieri said the 48-hour deadline could be later extended if that becomes an issue, or the Sheriff's Office could open an APAD office closer to St. Petersburg.

Council member Charlie Gerdes said the city could also allocate funds, perhaps $15,000, for Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority bus passes that St. Petersburg residents could use to reach APAD's location.

"I want to do what I can to help support the program," he said.

St. Petersburg officials said they would like to see the program issue quarterly reports that include demographic data. Council Member Steve Kornell, who led the civil citation measure, said Sheriff's Office data shows African-Americans make up 10 percent of the county population, but represent 41 percent of arrests for misdemeanor marijuana.

"This is an improvement over the status quo," Kornell said. "That's what we all want."

Contact Laura C. Morel at lmorel@tampabay.com. Follow @lauracmorel.

St. Petersburg joins Pinellas sheriff's ambitious criminal justice reform program 08/11/16 [Last modified: Thursday, August 11, 2016 7:04pm]
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