Marijuana decrim- er, "diversion program" passes in St. Pete

In Tampa, assuming you're not a chronic offender, getting busted for a little pinch of bud gets you a fine, similar to a speeding ticket.

Cross the Howard Frankland and get busted, assuming a new policy St. Pete officials signed off on Thursday is enacted, and you may have to do community service or get drug counseling.

Thursday morning, a St. Pete City Council committee unanimously gave the nod to a proposed countywide policy that treats some nonviolent indiscretions as lesser crimes, thus letting non-frequent offenders avoid arrest.

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri gave an overview of the concept, dubbed Adult Pre-Arrest Diversion.

Noting how getting arrested can mar a young adult's prospects for life (well, like, a young adult whose parents can't afford a good lawyer, anyway), Gualtieri said the policy was not so much about legalizing marijuana as it was targeting the cycle of poverty, given how getting arrested can hurt one's chances of future employment, housing and student financial aid.

The policy would apply to such conduct as possessing small amounts of marijuana, underage drinking and shoplifting.

Rather than pay a fine, offenders would be required to perform community service and possibly attend counseling or a drug treatment program.

Some officials were initially hesitant about shifting from arresting to ticketing or some other alternative as a consequence for something like marijuana despite what seems like a nationwide cultural shift toward accepting it as something people use as medicine or to catch a buzz.

As a result, a civil citation proposal much like that Tampa passed got stuck despite pleas from the public and some City Council members.

ADAP was something of a compromise that seemed to appease council members on either end of the political spectrum.

"I like what I heard and I'm much more comfortable with this diversion program than I am with the civil citations," said Councilman Ed Monanari, the most conservative member on the dais.

Officials acknowledged how the current arrest-based policy disproportionately hurts African Americans, and said they hope the diversion program will help level the playing field.

There's also the high taxpayer cost of arresting people needlessly, as the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office books 45,000 people per year, Gualtieri said. The county jail's average daily population is 2,800, he added, on which PCSO spends $110 million of its $285 million budget; it costs taxpayers $125 a day "to house someone in the county jail," he said.

"That doesn't even take into account the state attorney, the public defender, the clerk of court, the court system itself and all the other collateral entities that are affected an fund some part of the overall criminal justice system," Gualtieri said. "This just gets you from point A to point Z without all that expense."

The program could be put into place countywide as early as October.

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