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Romano: Citations for pot? Don't just stop there

St. Petersburg is exploring a civil citation program for small marijuana busts, and Pinellas County commissioners will hold a workshop on the same idea in early 2016. [Associated Press] 
Published Dec. 17, 2015

Some inventions are so simple, so logical, so valuable, it's utterly mystifying how long we endured before someone finally cashed in on the idea.

Turns out, some laws are that way, too.

For the longest time, we have embraced a philosophy of law and order that, in retrospect, seems more punitive than productive when it comes to minor offenses.

This has never been the fault of cops, and fingers shouldn't be pointed at our courts. It was just a lack of vision and flexibility that we never got around to addressing.

Until now, hopefully.

The city of St. Petersburg has begun talking about a civil citation program for small marijuana busts, and Pinellas County commissioners agreed Tuesday night to hold a workshop in early 2016 on the same issue.

That's a good start, but it shouldn't necessarily be the final destination.

While communities such as Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties have gotten headlines for essentially decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana — allowing police the option of issuing $100 tickets instead of making misdemeanor arrests — another emerging idea is certainly worth exploring.

Three years ago, Leon County and Tallahassee officials adopted a program for civil citation and diversion programs as an alternative to arresting people for minor, and nonviolent, first offenses. It is, at the same time, both more expansive and more restrictive than the marijuana ordinances.

Instead of limiting it to pot busts, the Tallahassee model includes crimes such as underage drinking, possession of drug paraphernalia, criminal mischief and petty theft.

That's the more expansive part.

But instead of allowing offenders to walk away with a small fine, it requires them to complete an intervention program or be subject to arrest down the road.

That's the more restrictive part.

According to recently released data, police in Leon issued 850 civil citations from March 2013 to August 2015. (A little more than half were for petty theft.) Approximately 80 percent of the offenders completed the intervention program.

The rearrest rate for that group was about 6 percent.

In other words, intervention and a second chance seems to be a more productive solution than parading them through jail and saddling them with arrest records.

"The reality is dealing with something this new and untraditional takes a while for folks to absorb and understand," said Greg Frost, president of the Civil Citation Network, a nonprofit that grew out of the Leon program. "There are a number of communities doing due diligence on this, and I would think in the next six to 12 months, you're going to see a number of them adopting similar ideas."

State Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, has introduced legislation that would encourage communities to set up civil citation programs. The legislation, which unanimously passed a criminal justice committee, allows local officials to tailor it to their needs and preferences.

Focus on intervention? Fine. Focus on fines? Great. Do a combination? That works, too. Limit it to first offenses, or allow multiple minor infractions? That's up to the locals.

The point is that communities do not have to limit themselves to old-fashioned solutions that haven't necessarily been effective. A disproportionate number of these minor arrests take place in low-income and minority communities and are often blamed for perpetuating a cycle of poverty and crime because of the stigma that follows an arrest record.

"Do we really want to tarnish a young person's entire life for these minor arrests?" said Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long. "This begs for a really robust discussion."

The beauty of the issue is that it should appeal to liberals and conservatives alike. Not only could it curb the disparity between arrests, but it could eventually become fiscally responsible if it reduces nuisance arrests for police and courts.

"We want to make sure we are expending our resources in the most effective way," said Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch, who broached the marijuana citation issue Tuesday night. "With terrorists and human trafficking problems in this country, is it wise to be spending so much money on these minor marijuana arrests?"

Like any good innovation, this concept is bound to expand.

We might as well get in on the bottom floor.

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