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Monday, Sep 24, 2018
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Broward program will give small-time offenders a big break

FORT LAUDERDALE — Pot smokers aren’t the only law breakers able to get a second chance in South Florida.

Underage adults buying alcohol, those stealing property worth less than $300 and people nabbed for trespassing, loitering or disorderly conduct are also now eligible to get a break in Broward County.

A new adult civil citation program is expected to reduce taxpayer costs by keeping people out of jail who don’t pose a danger.

Like a homeless man who was locked up for 42 days after he was picked up for sleeping on Fort Lauderdale’s beach. He was unable to afford the $25 bond to get out of jail, so it cost the county about $5,880 to house him. He ended up with a $50 fine.

Another man spent 65 days in jail — at a cost to the county of $9,100 — because he couldn’t pay a $25 bond for charges of panhandling and for drinking a beer on a city bench.

The program also provides a reprieve for someone committing a youthful mistake or using poor judgment. It can keep them from creating a permanent blemish on their criminal record that could affect their ability to get a job, receive government services, join the military or qualify for student loans or scholarships.

"The great benefit of this is that the people who will more than likely get these citations are still younger people," Broward Commissioner Dale Holness said of the program approved by commissioners. "People still in their formative years."

The cost savings could be in the millions of dollars. A juvenile civil citation program has produced $14 million in savings over the past four years, officials said.

On Feb. 8, there were 3,548 inmates in Broward jails, including 101 awaiting trial for misdemeanors and 102 with bonds of $500 or less. It costs the county roughly $140 per inmate per day to house them.

"There’s a culture change in how we see these individuals," said Robert Weissert, executive vice president of Florida TaxWatch that supports adult civil citations. "?‘Tough on crime’ is just ‘Tough on taxpayers.’?"

The extra chances offered by the new citation program won’t be automatic. They’ll be at the discretion of the deputy or police officer handling the incident. And they’re only for minor infractions that don’t involve violence and aren’t connected to a felony offense.

There are no breaks for drunken driving, domestic violence, misdemeanor batteries that result in more than a minor injury, or in a case where a victim with a minor injury objects to the offender being given only a citation.

A civil citation is what kept Heisman Trophy winner and former Florida State University quarterback Jameis Winston, now with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, from an arrest in 2014 for shoplifting $32.72 worth of crab legs and crawfish from a Tallahassee Publix. Instead, Winston completed 20 hours of community service and avoided a criminal charge.

Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties already have similar policies for adults caught with up to 20 grams of marijuana and for juvenile offenders. In Florida, 61 of 67 counties have juvenile civil citation programs.

Statewide, Broward joins Miami-Dade, Pinellas and Leon counties in offering an expanded program for adults.

Hallandale Beach, Coral Springs and Lauderhill have their own diversion programs for adult offenders.

There’s a bill before the state Legislature that would require each judicial circuit in the state to create and implement adult and juvenile civil citation programs, although similar legislation has not passed in recent years.

"The issue is progressing even without the state law changing," as local communities move forward with programs of their own, said Weissert of Florida TaxWatch, a Tallahassee-based nonprofit government watchdog group.

The citation program shifts the focus from punishment to getting the individuals to stop their criminal behavior, he said.

A three-year review of the Leon County program from 2013 to 2016 showed that 1,113 citations were issued with an average successful completion rate of 83 percent, according to a state analysis. The re-arrest rate was 7 percent for those who completed the program and 61 percent for those who did not, the report said.

Miami-Dade, which has had an adult program since 2010, issued 8,905 citations in 2017, including 4,284 for marijuana possession, 1,716 for possession of drug paraphernalia and 406 for consuming alcohol in public. That’s 8,900 people who didn’t have to be processed into the system, saving time and money, officials said.

"You don’t have the arrest, the booking, the temporary holding," Weissert said. "You don’t have any of those costs."

How many people benefit from the policies depends upon how willing departments are to implement them.

Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw has refused to use the marijuana citation program approved by the county commission there and Fort Lauderdale opted out of the Broward County marijuana citation program.

Broward Sheriff Scott Israel is all for the expanded adult program, which also has the backing of State Attorney Mike Satz and Public Defender Howard Finkelstein.

"It gives adults second and third chances. It holds them accountable," Israel said. "It’s not a slap on the wrist."

In the Broward program, adults issued a civil citation instead of being arrested or being given a notice to appear in court will have to pay a program fee, perform community service and may be required to take a behavioral health or educational course.

The program "frees up our police officers to do their jobs even better because now they can go out and pursue more hardened criminals rather than spend a lot of time on minor misdemeanors," Holness said.

The county’s juvenile program has a 94 percent success rate, he said.

"This is an opportunity to expand that thing that we know works for children and give adults the opportunity as well," Chief Assistant Public Defender Gordon Weekes said.

The expanded Broward program also changes how marijuana offenses are treated.

Under the program passed by Broward commissioners in 2015, people caught with marijuana faced a $100 fine for a first offense, $250 fine for a second offense and $500 fine for a third offense.

Under the new rules, they are required to pay a program fee, perform community service and may have to pay for and attend a behavioral health course for each violation.

It will take several months before the new program is up and running, officials said.

Chief Judge Jack Tuter’s goal is to save the county money by lowering the jail population.

"I am trying my best to see what we can do to reduce the jail population and making sure that we are holding people that are dangerous in the county jail," Tuter said.

Another group of people frequently arrested for minor offenses are the homeless, who often cannot afford bond if they are arrested. The law allows program managers to develop a sliding scale fee based on an individual’s ability to pay.

However, Weissert said the adult civil citations may not be the best way of dealing with homeless issues, which often include substance abuse and mental health problems. The programs are targeted more at first-time, nonviolent, community-based offenders, like the college kid picked up for underage drinking, he said.

Individuals who fail to comply with the terms of a citation don’t get a second chance if they commit a new violation and they could face arrest for the original violation. The program allows a maximum of three citations. Offenders also aren’t eligible if they’ve had a misdemeanor conviction in the previous year or a felony conviction in the previous three years.

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