Smart Justice advocates: Let cops ticket for some crimes, instead of jail

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The state’s criminal justice system has seen some success with using alternatives to lock-ups for juvenile offenders. It’s been so successful that there’s a burgeoning movement to increase the use of non-jail diversion programs with non-violent adult offenders, reports Margie Menzel of the News Service of Florida.

Backers of the idea announced on Wednesday an agreement with Leon County by which police will have the ability to issue civil citations to people who commit certain crimes rather than taking them to jail.

If implemented statewide, backers say providing an alternative to jail or prison for non-violent adults could save Florida tens of millions of dollars a year.

“It’s worked so well with the juveniles that we think it’ll work really well with adults,” said Mark Flynn, president and CEO of the Smart Justice Alliance, which is pushing the concept.

The approach works by giving law enforcement officers the discretion to issue a civil citation rather than make an arrest – but only when the offender has no previous record and the offense is non-violent.

Leon County, which includes Tallahassee, was selected as the pilot partly because the concept of juvenile civil citations began here 17 years ago. Also, all the key players needed to make such a move in the county are on board, particularly State Attorney Willie Meggs, Sheriff Larry Campbell and Tallahassee Police Chief Dennis Jones.

Civil citations for juveniles were also a success in Miami-Dade County, where Wansley Walters, now secretary of the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, was then the director of juvenile services. DJJ reports that in 2009-2010, roughly 7,000 young people statewide went through the civil citation process, with just 7 percent re-offending. In comparison, one-third of adults released from Florida prisons re-offend within three years.

According to a January 2011 report by the Associated Industries of Florida Foundation, the success of the juvenile diversion programs in Leon and Miami-Dade “suggested that the number of juveniles processed through the system could be reduced by 40 percent through diversion.”

With juveniles, the non-violent offenses that qualify them for civil citations usually involve petty theft or marijuana, said TPD’s Jones.

Asked if leaving such decisions to the discretion of law enforcement officers is wise, Campbell and Jones said that’s how the system works now.

“We do that every day,” said Campbell. “Half of law enforcement is discretion.”

“This program is designed for the lesser offenses…The attitude of the offender may have something to do with it,” said Jones. “Arrests should be our last tool, regardless.”

The “smart justice” coalition’s plan for Leon requires adult offenders to undergo an assessment within 72 hours, perform at least 25 hours of community service, undergo treatment for contributing factors such as drug abuse, theft or gambling – and pay all costs of the program.

Those who fail to meet the conditions face arrest, but clearly the great majority of juvenile offenders have been scared straight.

“They’re held accountable,” said Tom Olk, executive director of DISC Village, who has spear-headed the plan to extend civil citations to adults.

Proponents of the plan say public safety is well served by diverting scarce resources from offenders who don’t need to be behind bars – and targeting dangerously violent felons instead.

“Someone who has made a made a minor mistake won’t be put in with a hardened criminal,” said Campbell.

Reducing the nightly number of inmates in the county jail – now about 1,000 in Leon County – would reduce costs on everything from mandatory medical screening to laundry, Campbell said..

The coalition hopes to take the approach statewide soon. Existing rules adopted by the Florida Supreme Court provide the authority for it, but local circuit courts have to be involved, too.

“We’ve been working on this project on a statewide basis for several years and are finally getting some traction,” said Olk. “We just happen to be the first. I know that there are other circuits that hope to come online in the next couple of months. They’re watching us closely…I can honestly say they don’t have the level of cooperation and support that we do [in Leon]. But we’ve always had it here.”

Olk acknowledged that while Leon and Miami-Dade have long assimilated juvenile civil citations, not all counties agree.

“There are still areas of the state where they don’t (the idea for juveniles), and I’m sure they’re not going to like adult civil citation,” he said.

But he predicted the data would prove his case.

“What does it cost? Is it effective?” Olk asked. “Once we have that data, we think it’ll spread like wildfire.”

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including,,, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.