Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee has an antiquated view of what should happen to juvenile offenders who commit minor crimes. The sheriff continues to support traditional criminalization tactics for low-level offenses such as misdemeanor marijuana possession, an approach that has resulted in the over-incarceration of youth for minor crimes that could be addressed with more progressive measures. The sheriff should be open-minded and re-examine his approach.
Members of a religious coalition known as Hillsborough Organization for Progress and Equality, or HOPE, held a meeting this week in Tampa to seek support from elected officials on social issues, including civil citations for youths caught with small amounts of marijuana. Known for its high-pressure persuasion tactics, HOPE heard from a circuit judge who pledged support for the effort among his colleagues and said they soon will have a policy that encourages the resolution of juvenile marijuana charges with drug treatment and a fine instead of a criminal conviction. Public defenders also expressed support for civil citations. But in a letter that was read to the audience, Gee wrote that youth who received a citation for marijuana possession would see it as "no big deal."
"I strongly oppose this 'solution' because those given a civil citation receive no personal sanctions, or services, related to their drug use. A fine is paid, perhaps minor community service is completed, and the issue fades away. A civil citation puts no accountability on parents or the juvenile for follow-up actions that address the drug use."
Gee favors steering young offenders to drug court, enabling them to complete a program and have their charges dropped. He also cited a new state law that allows juvenile arrests for possession of 20 grams or less of marijuana to remain confidential. Another new law allows adults to petition the courts to have their juvenile records expunged at age 21 and as early as 18, presumably before a permanent criminal record is created. Both laws represent progress. But they should not override attempts to keep youthful offenders out of the criminal justice system in the first place.
Issuing civil citations or allowing participation in pre-arrest diversion programs is not about giving youths permission to smoke marijuana. Administered properly, such efforts also are not a get out of jail free card. But they ably seek to address the nation's overreliance on the criminal justice system to deal with small offenses. The traditional punishment disproportionately affects minorities and needlessly introduces youth to the criminal justice system for crimes that could be addressed with a more thoughtful, less punitive approach.
The Hillsborough sheriff is stuck in the past. Though they sometimes use different approaches, local governments throughout Florida are moving toward decriminalizing low-level crimes in a variety of ways. In Tampa, the City Council recently moved to issue civil citations in lieu of arresting adults for small amounts of marijuana. St. Petersburg is considering a similar measure. Separately, the Pinellas County Commission backs a proposal by Sheriff Bob Gualtieri to create a pre-arrest diversion program for adults that would include options other than arrest for several minor crimes. There is no reason for Gee to hold fast to a zero-tolerance position when it is clear that stance has doomed so many with the albatross of a criminal record when more progressive measures could yield more positive results. Other enlightened elected officials and the sheriff's constituents should encourage him to re-examine his position.