Imagine you and some buddies are enjoying a friendly low-stakes poker game
when your enthusiastic host turns the music up way too loud. One of his
neighbors gets annoyed and calls the police, who discover the poker game -
and suddenly you're facing a possible gambling arrest.
Or imagine you've been standing in line patiently for hours to buy the
latest piece of technology when someone tries to cut into the line. You tell
him to get to the back of the line, but the line-cutter threatens to assault
you and everyone around you. The situation escalates and the next thing you
know, everyone is facing a disorderly conduct charge.
These kinds of scenarios could happen to anyone. Even with no criminal
intent, we can easily be caught breaking a law. Until now, law enforcement
officers in Florida have had only two choices in these circumstances: let
you go or arrest you.
Soon, however, officers and deputies in Florida's capital county will have
another, much smarter alternative. Next month Leon County will become the
first place in Florida to provide officers with the discretion to issue
Adult Civil Citations to first-time, non-violent individuals who commit
certain low-level offenses. These individuals will be spared from a criminal
arrest record that would follow them for the rest of their lives.
Florida has successfully utilized civil citations for juveniles for 17 years
now, and the Florida Smart Justice Alliance believes this new approach will
save tens - perhaps hundreds - of millions of dollars per year if it is
implemented for adults statewide. Not only will it save money, but the Adult
Civil Citation process will also enhance public safety by freeing up law
enforcement, prosecutors and courts to deal with more serious criminals.
The agreement to implement Adult Civil Citations within Leon County came
about thanks to visionary leaders across the criminal justice spectrum - not
just law enforcement and prosecutors, but also the Public Defender's Office,
the judiciary and local treatment providers. Despite their usual
differences, they all agree that civil citations represent a smarter way to
use tax dollars to keep the public safe.
Here's how it works: Local agreements give officers the flexibility to
determine when certain alcohol, drug and other non-violent offenders would
be better served by receiving an adult civil citation rather than being
arrested for minor offenses like public intoxication, petty theft,
disorderly conduct, trespassing and the like. Offenders who qualify will
still be required to perform community service and undergo treatment for any
conditions that contributed to their offenses, and they - rather than the
taxpayers - will pay all costs. If they fail to meet the conditions of the
program, they face arrest.
However, the process can spare them a criminal record, eliminating a major
barrier to future employment, education, military service and other
opportunities to build a law-abiding life. The taxpayers also benefit
tremendously, avoiding the substantial expense of prosecuting and
incarcerating these first-time, low-level offenders.
Leon County Sheriff Larry Campbell, who has taken a hard-line approach to
crime and criminals over his 16 years in office, supports Adult Civil
Citations because, as he put it, "A minor stupid act shouldn't automatically
ruin a person's life." At the same time Public Defender Nancy Daniels, who
often represents those the sheriff arrests, is equally enthusiastic because
a civil citation "has the ability to change a life for the better by keeping
the person out of our criminal justice system."
Adult Civil Citation is an idea whose time has come. It helps individuals,
it helps law enforcement and - most importantly - it helps the taxpayers. It
represents the essence of a smart justice approach to crime in Florida, and
it has the potential to rewrite how Florida's criminal justice system
operates. With the cooperation and support of leaders in communities across
our state, it can become an important tool for cost-effective public safety.
Mark Flynn is the president and chief executive officer of the Florida Smart
Justice Alliance, a statewide coalition of organizations "committed to
changes that make communities safer, save the taxpayers money and hold
offenders accountable while helping them learn to live law-abiding lives."