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‘Smart Justice’ group aims to reduce misdemeanor arrests for trivial crimes

William Patrick, Watchdog.org

A Tallahassee-based criminal justice group is pushing a reform measure that could substantially reduce the number of arrests for misdemeanor crimes committed in Florida.

“We’re arresting too many people for too many things they shouldn’t be arrested for in the first place,” says Barney Bishop, president and CEO of the Florida Smart Justice Alliance. “Right now, there’s no other viable option.”

The proposed solution is a statewide adult civil citation program.

Civil citations are a diversionary alternative to the traditional arrest, booking and court approach to law enforcement. They afford eligible misdemeanor offenders the opportunity to avoid the criminal justice system and escape the pitfalls of a criminal record.

Juvenile civil citations are already a law enforcement tool for police departments and sheriff’s offices throughout the state. The Smart Justice Alliance hopes to duplicate the favorable outcomes for adults.

“Stepping Up 2016,” a study by the The Children’s Campaign, a youth advocacy group, found that juveniles arrested for minor crimes are twice as likely to re-offend as those issued civil citations and assigned to diversion programs involving community service and counseling.

The results of a first-in-the-nation adult program in Leon County — the area encompassing Tallahassee and the state capital — are just as encouraging.

Launched in 2013, about 1,000 adult civil citations have been issued by local law enforcement. The misdemeanor offenses include:

Possession of alcohol by a person under 21 years of age

Possession of less than 20 grams of marijuana

Possession of drug paraphernalia

An open house party violation

Selling or giving alcoholic beverages to a minor

Criminal mischief

Trespassing

Non-domestic battery or assault

Petit theft

Disorderly conduct

According to DISC Village, a nonprofit intervention agency, about 80 percent of citation program participants completed the subsequent accountability process. The recidivism rate, or re-arrest rate, was six percent.

The recidivism rate for those who didn’t complete the citation program was 43 percent.

“Everybody makes at least one stupid mistake,” said Bishop. “But it shouldn’t mean you have to have it on your record for the rest of your life.”

An attempt to pass an adult measure died earlier this year on the last day of the state legislative session.

Bishop believes 2017 will be different. As the immediate past president of the Associated Industries of Florida, one of the most influential lobbying firms in the state, he’s intimately acquainted with the legislative process.

In an interview, Bishop said the failed bill passed every committee but ran out of time. When legislators meet again in March, he expects to have the necessary support.

Bishop also said he’s been working on model legislation with the American Legislative Exchange Council, a national conservative membership organization of state legislators.

Florida is one of 25 states with a Republican-controlled legislature and Republican governor that could advance the “common sense” reform, especially as many justice-reform Democrats are likely to sign on.

“This has the potential to change the face of criminal justice across the country,” said Bishop.

If successful, the plan is to encourage communities and public education institutions to implement adult civil citation programs but without making them mandatory.

Local law enforcement officers would have the sole discretion to issue the citations if there was probable cause to make an arrest and the officer determined the diversion option was appropriate.

Alleged offenders would have to admit to committing the misdemeanor crime, and could not previously have been arrested or issued a citation. Potential recipients would be ineligible if the misdemeanor involved a victim and the victim objected.

If the eligible offender agreed to participate, they would then attend an intake process within seven days. Based on the results of an assessment and initial drug screening, an intervention plan would be developed and include community service, behavioral health counseling, intervention education and, depending, drug screening.

If completed, there would be no criminal record of the offense. Failure to complete the citation program would lead to a criminal charge and referral to a state attorney’s office.

According to a legislative analysis, the taxpayer cost of the program is nil. Participant fees would sustain the accountability process, and fiscal impact statements anticipate public savings as costs associated with criminal confinement would be reduced.

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