Law enforcement agencies in Pinellas County have partnered to launch one of the largest criminal justice reforms in Tampa Bay's recent history.
Led by Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, the initiative will help adults who commit low-level crimes avoid a criminal record that could make it difficult to later find a job or housing. Instead of going to jail, they'll be required to complete community service, plus counseling or drug treatment. No fines or court costs are involved.
"There are a whole bunch of people who have a bump in the road," Gualtieri said. "Those bumps and mistakes should not be an impediment to them succeeding in life."
The state attorney, public defender and chief judge, approve of the plan. Every city but St. Petersburg has signed on, with Gualtieri scheduled to make a presentation before City Council on Thursday.
The council voted unanimously in May to delay consideration of an ordinance that would allow citations for the first three offenses of 20 grams or less of marijuana until Gualtieri's plan was completed.
"In order for it to be fair and make sure it's an equal-access system, it's important that the city of St. Petersburg be on board," he said. "It creates a lack of continuity when you have every other law enforcement agency in the county that is going to participate in this."
St. Petersburg police Chief Tony Holloway said he supports Gualtieri's plan.
"Hopefully, everybody will like it," he said of City Council. "I think this program addresses a lot of things, not just misdemeanor marijuana. It addresses a lot of misdemeanor cases out there and really gives a person a second chance."
The Pinellas initiative is a sign of a criminal justice system that is shifting its focus from punishment to rehabilitation as crime rates continue to drop. Initiatives similar to Gualtieri's plan, called prearrest programs, have launched in other states and proven successful in reducing recidivism among low-level offenders.
"As time goes on, we will see more diversion programs adapted and we will see many more alternative programs," said Dr. John DeCarlo, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of New Haven. "We are beginning to understand a little better that if we put a marginal person in jail with hardened criminals, they're going to have to change to survive to the point where we can damage them more."
Gualtieri has released few details about how the program will work, except to say that it will operate from the Sheriff's Office and will apply to a range of charges, such as marijuana possession, underage possession of alcohol, petit theft and some battery charges that don't involve domestic violence.
Although the initiative's main goal is to steer nonviolent, low-level offenders from a record, the program may also reduce the burden on police, the county jail and the court system.
It could mean shorter delays in responding to calls, Clearwater police Chief Dan Slaughter said.
"We can't arrest our way out of these problems," he said. "This is a step in the right direction."
At the state attorney and public defender's offices, the effect may be minimal. Many defendants charged with misdemeanors plead early in their cases, sometimes before they've been assigned an attorney.
But the biggest effect will be helping low-level offenders avoid an arrest paper trail, said Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger.
"With data miners out there, even if you get it sealed and expunged, it's there," he said. "If it comes up, you're in trouble."
Many diversion programs focus on intervening in a person's case after they've been charged, but few across the country, like Pinellas' plan, focus on preventing an arrest altogether.
The closest one to Tampa Bay that has been launched is in Tallahassee. A partnership among city police, the Leon County Sheriff's Office and a local nonprofit group, the program focuses on first-time misdemeanor offenders who must complete counseling or drug treatment tailored to their needs, as well as complete community service and pay a $350 fee, which can be reduced or waived.
About 1,200 people have completed the program since its inception three years ago, said Greg Frost, president of the Civil Citation Network, a nonprofit that works closely with Leon County's initiative. As of last August, only 6 percent had committed another crime.
"By doing this at the very first point of contact with law enforcement, we're able to really get people the assistance that they need," Frost said.
In 2011, authorities in the Seattle area began the LEAD initiative that allows officers to refer drug and prostitution offenders who could have faced charges to counseling, drug treatment and housing.
"It's made the police's role in this more proactive," said Lisa Daugaard, director of the Public Defender Association in Seattle, which oversees the program. "It makes it much less punitive. That too has really changed the dynamic between police officers and people on the street."
A University of Washington study found that people enrolled in LEAD were 58 percent less likely to reoffend than those who didn't participate. Four other cities are now also using LEAD.
"It's not that anyone has the perfect alternative. The alternative is still in development in many communities around the country," Daugaard said. "What we know for sure is that we can do a lot better."
Contact Laura C. Morel at email@example.com. Follow @lauracmorel.