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Hillsborough County is now offering diversion program for teenagers possessing pot

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Although it is not exactly following in the footsteps of the city of Tampa’s move to decriminalize the possession of pot, the Hillsborough County Sheriffs Department has begun a year-long pilot program with other local agencies that will offer an alternative to arrest for first-time offenders caught with marijuana between the ages of 8 to 17.

The Delinquent Act Citation Pilot Program (DAC Pilot Program) is a Hillsborough County alternative to arrest and a possible criminal record for juveniles found to be in possession of 20 grams or less of cannabis, or possession of drug paraphernalia.The program started on Monday and will run through July 31, 2017. It’s a cooperative effort between the offices of the State Attorney, Public Defender, Hillsborough County Sheriff, Temple Terrace Police Department, Plant City Police Department, the Administrative Office of the Courts and the Clerk of the Circuit Court.

In March, the Tampa City Council passed an ordinance that effectively decriminalized possession of up to 20 grams of marijuana. But the ordinance didn’t apply to juveniles. Under Tampa’s ordinance, adults caught with small amounts of pot receive citations with fines ranging from $75 to $450, which would be the penalty for a fourth violation.

Activists had protested Hillsborough Sheriff David Gee’s reluctance to embrace a similar program inside Hillsborough County, but Hillsborough County Sheriff Office spokesman Larry McKinnon says there are differences, with the most significant being that the county program has options to put the arrested citizen back into the criminal courts if he or she fails to complete the diversionary program.

“A criminal arrest affidavit is completed, it’s just held in abeyance until they successfully complete in the misdemeanor diversion program, but it doesn’t exclude it from resorting back to that if they fail that contract,” he said on Tuesday.

These first time offenders, between the ages of 8 to 17, will receive a risk assessment and be referred to a treatment provider for an evaluation and treatment determination.  The juvenile must accept responsibility for the offense and the juvenile and the parent/guardian must agree to participate in the program.

Hillsborough had been the only one of the 59 Florida counties with juvenile civil citation programs that didn’t allow citations instead of arrests for misdemeanor pot possession.

The Administrative Office of the Court (AOC), is responsible for monitoring the DAC Pilot Program.  The Juvenile Diversion Program (JDP) and Juvenile Drug Court (JDC), both under the authority of the AOC, will assist juveniles from the time they are issued a citation, to successful completion of a treatment provider’s requirements.  Juveniles who successfully complete the program avoid an arrest record. Youth who fail to complete the DAC program or are charged with another crime while in the program, will be referred to the State Attorney’s Office for potential prosecution.”

“We’re not trying to put somebody in a criminal justice arena, we’re just trying to allow the system, for lack of a better term, to have some type of ‘hold’ on that particular youngster so that we can ensure that they are afforded drug education treatment and rehabilitation, ” McKinnon says. “If they don’t choose to do it, there’s no mandate to make them do that.”

Although McKinnon emphasizes that the Sheriffs Department main objection with the Tampa program was the failure to put accountability on parents or the juvenile for follow-up actions that address the drug use, the Tampa Bay Times reports that back in April at a large meeting held by the Hillsborough Organization for Progress and Equality (HOPE), Sheriff Gee appeared to have an issue on moral grounds. The paper reported that Hillsborough sheriff’s Maj. Willie Parker read a lengthy letter from Sheriff Gee, which “referenced studies that show marijuana can cause brain damage in young people, and that high schoolers are more likely to drop out if they smoke pot, among other negative effects.”

“This is great news, because this is what we’ve been working on and it’s really the fruits of what we’ve done as the juvenile justice board,” says Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Beckner. “We were the only county in Florida that has civil citation that didn’t offer that (citations for marijuana possession), and so that has a great impact on minority youth. I think this is going to give them a second chance to complete their eduction, get a good paying job or go into military without the lifelong scar of an arrest record.”

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Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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