Moving forward on justice and opportunity

Ken Welch, Pinellas County Commissioner

BY KEN WELCH, Pinellas County Commissioner

Pinellas County is moving forward in many ways. The recently implemented Community Development Areas dedicated to poverty reduction, and renewed focus on housing, health care and mental health reflect real progress in our community. For us to be successful in providing true opportunity for all, we must also implement reforms to our criminal justice system, and end the cycle of arrest and rearrests, particularly for minor offenses. Across the nation, these minor arrests disproportionately affect minorities and the poor.

In Pinellas, African Americans comprise about 10 percent of the population, but accounted for about 41 percent of the arrests for minor marijuana possession between 2013 and 2015. As we focus on reducing poverty and increasing employment, we must remember that a minor arrest can lead to a criminal record, which in turn can lead to difficulty in obtaining a job, financial assistance or even a driver’s license. There is a better way forward.

Ken Welch, Pinellas County Commissioner

Ken Welch, Pinellas County Commissioner

On April 5, the County Commission will convene a work session focused on developing a more effective, fair and progressive system for dealing with offenses like minor marijuana possession, trespassing, minor theft and other minor violations. Pinellas has successfully implemented juvenile diversion programs for years, and the expansion of diversion and treatment programs for adults will provide a path to true rehabilitation, will enhance our efforts to move people from poverty to jobs, and will ultimately reduce the cost of incarceration borne by the taxpayers.

Another option is a Civil Citation ordinance, like the recently implemented Tampa ordinance. This approach would provide some of the same benefits of arrest avoidance, however it is limited to the city limits, and it is important that we have a countywide solution. An expanded adult diversion program would provide a countywide benefit, with or without a civil citation ordinance at the county or city level.

I have discussed this issue with many stakeholders, including Sheriff Gualtieri, police chiefs, elected officials and community stakeholders. I am pleased the see the recognition of the problem, and creative thinking to create a more just and fair approach to our handling of minor offenses in Pinellas county. The current disparity in arrests must be addressed, and Pinellas has a strong record in providing smart, effective diversion for juveniles.

To move our community forward, it is imperative that we provide adults with a pathway for a second chance. Successful completion of an adult diversion program will mean an opportunity for a productive life without a criminal record for a minor offense. It is a vital component to moving our community forward.

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