CLEARWATER — A diversion program launched in October across Pinellas County has helped more than 450 people avoid criminal records for low-level offenses, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri reported to the County Commission on Tuesday.
The Adult Pre-Arrest Diversion Program, an ambitious criminal justice reform that Gualtieri set up last year, allows adults arrested for low-level crimes to avoid jail by completing community service, counseling or drug treatment. The program is aimed at eliminating arrest records for minor offenses, which make it difficult for people to find jobs and housing.
Since Oct. 17, officials have accepted 39 percent, or 816 of the 2,105 people referred to the new program. Of those accepted, 469 of them, or 57 percent, completed a total of 11,000 hours of community service to avoid an arrest record. Marijuana possession and retail theft were the two leading offenses referred to the program.
"It's the only one like it in the state of Florida," Gualtieri told the Pinellas County Commission. "The numbers show a lot of success."
Many diversion programs focus on intervening in a case after that person has been charged. But there are few in the country like Pinellas' program, which focuses on avoiding an arrest altogether.
The Pinellas program also doesn't levy any fines or court costs. A similar program run by the Leon County Sheriff's Office requires offenders to pay a $400 fee. But Gualtieri said it would be counterproductive to charge a fee if an offender was so poor they had to steal food to eat.
"The criminal justice system should not be pay to play," the sheriff said.
The program focuses on minor crimes like marijuana possession, underage possession of alcohol, petty theft and certain battery charges that don't involve allegations of domestic violence. Eligible offenders can be referred from an arresting officer, a jailer during the booking process or from the Clerk of the Circuit Court.
Gualtieri cited one example as a success story: A father avoided an arrest record after shoving someone during a heated argument at a child's sporting event. The initial results of the program, the sheriff said, have exceeded expectations.
"There are a lot of great stories here," said County Commissioner Dave Eggers. "This is the right thing to do."
Participants can't have a prior misdemeanor conviction within two years of the new offense or a felony conviction within five years. Registered sex offenders are banned from participating. While there are no fees, offenders may still have to pay restitution.
To create the program, Gualtieri had to lobby each law enforcement agency and municipal government in the county to participate.
The guidelines, the sheriff said, are strict and will help people who made minor mistakes during "peaks and valleys" in their lives. But the initiative isn't for everyone, as he noted there were 67 offenders accepted into the program who failed to follow through, resulting in criminal charges.
The sheriff doesn't know why they wouldn't take advantage of the program.
"If you don't complete the program, you're done," Gualtieri said. "You had the opportunity. We're not playing around."
Commissioner Ken Welch called the early results "responsive to the needs of the community" and "such a smart and well-crafted program." He asked whether logistics prevented residents in south Pinellas County from participating.
Gualtieri said he hasn't heard of any issues, but pledged to open a satellite office there if it becomes a problem. He will also re-evaluate the program this summer.
Contact Mark Puente at email@example.com or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente