As part of the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater metro area, second only to Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach metro area, Pinellas County is a heavy hitter. With 2 of the 3 most populous cities located in Pinellas County, they have a major role in Florida's political and judicial ecosystem. That is why the August 11 agreement between the St. Petersburg City Council and Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri is such a big deal.
In what is being called an incredibly ambitious and far-reaching plan to implement criminal justice reforms in the entire Tampa Bay area, a new Adult Pre-Arrest Diversion program is being created. In fact, if it is successful, it is hard not to see this program spread to other Florida counties.
Under this program, a person who commits a minor crime like underage possession of alcohol, possession of marijuana, petty theft, and similar levels of charges, will have an opportunity to avoid arrest and a criminal record. Furthermore, it applies to anyone arrested and charged in Pinellas County, whether they live in Florida or not.
The way this program will work is that a person charged with the low-level crime will be given 48 hours to show up at a location where they will complete community service rather than spend time in the criminal justice system. As a result, St. Petersburg – the largest city in Pinellas County, Florida to sign up for this program – will hope to see lower jail bookings as well as a reduced caseload on already overworked Public Defenders and the criminal court system as a whole.
The most important feature of the program is the previously-mentioned fact a participant will avoid a criminal record. We have spoken about the problems that come with criminal records on multiple occasions. In a state like Florida, where sealing or expunging your criminal record is not easy, this could make a real difference in finding a job or a safe place to live.
With St. Petersburg signing up, the Sunshine City has joined every other municipality in this very influential Florida county, allowing this alternative sentencing regime to start as soon as October. As Gualtieri points out, "It's the right thing to do for the residents of this county. It's very important that this be fair, consistent, and that everybody has equal access to it."
While the Tampa Police Department has implemented a program that provides people caught with small amounts of marijuana a chance to avoid jail, the Sheriff's Offices in Hillsborough and Hernando counties – Pinellas' sister counties in the Tampa Bay area – are not contemplating similar programs. Furthermore, Pinellas county's reforms goes much farther than the Tampa Bay area as a whole. In fact, it stands as one of the most aggressive reforms in the entire state of Florida.
That doesn't mean all hope is lost for Tampa Bay. The remaining county in Tampa Bay, Pasco county, has had their Sheriff, Chris Nocco, go on the record to say the reforms championed by Gualtieri as "intriguing" and they plan to have a few meetings to exchange ideas and learn more about the details.
During that meeting with the St. Petersburg city council, Gualtieri outlined a few of those details. The most important parts of the plan include the following:
Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch and St. Petersburg Police Chief Tony Holloway gave the APAD program their full support during the council meeting. Residents, including St. Pete for Justice organizer Kofi Hunt, also expressed their support. Hunt, who supports full decriminalization of marijuana, believes that the APAD program is a step in the right direction. During the meeting, Hunt told the council "You're doing the best you can. I think this alleviates some of the current issues that we face historically with systemic racism."
Gualtieri's proposal was heard in place of a previous proposal in St. Petersburg where civil citations would be issued for the first three offenses of possession of 20 grams or less of marijuana. Gualtieri believes that this "hodge podge of laws" in the county would be unfair to residents. That concern was shared with council member Ed Montanari.
Montanari stated that he was far "more confident with this diversion program than I was with the civil citation route. 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."
For those who may have trouble arranging transportation to the 24-hour APAD program office, Council member Charlie Gerdes proposed allocating up to $15,000 for Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority bus passes that St. Petersburg residents could use to reach the office. Gerdes stated "I want to do what I can to help support the program." Furthermore, Gualtieri suggested that the 48-hour deadline could be extended for residents who face such a difficulty.
St. Petersburg officials requested quarterly reports that include demographic data. Council member Steve Kornell, one of the driving forces behind the now-shelved civil citation measure, pointed out that data from the Sheriff's Office shows that African-Americans make up only 10% of the population in Pinellas County, Florida, but they represent 41% of arrests for misdemeanor marijuana possession. Kornell stated that the APAD program "is an improvement over the status quo. That's what we all want."