NEW PORT RICHEY, Fla. - The Pasco County Sheriff's Office is sending letters to people with criminal histories offering help to get on a better path, but it's a practice critics are calling unwarranted harassment.
Sheriff Chris Nocco's letter is the latest step in a broad effort to monitor people considered likely lawbreakers, and focuses on adult violent and narcotics prolific offenders, the agency told Fox News. The campaign uses criminal histories, social networks and other intelligence to create the lists, part of an academic research grant through the University of South Florida and the Department of Justice.
The letter starts off with the salutation "we are pleased to inform you that you have been selected to participate in a Prolific Offender Program" run by the sheriff's office along with help from 18 entities ranging from the Salvation Army to alcohol abuse programs to the state Department of Children and Families.
The program offers criminal offenders the "opportunity to receive assistance from the Pasco Sheriff’s Office and several community partners who will work with you to identify and overcome barriers that have hindered you in your life’s journey," Nocco wrote. The letter explains research indicates that barriers to successful living may involve struggles with mental health, substance abuse, domestic violence, homelessness, finding a job or several other challenges many people face on a daily basis.
If recipients have experienced these barriers, the letter says, "the Pasco Sheriff’s Office is committed to support you in overcoming these challenges through this program." It notes that the sheriff’s office partners with human resources and includes a quick resource guide with the contact information for government agencies, health clinics and nonprofit organizations to address child care, housing, drug and alcohol addiction, legal help, domestic violence, behavioral health and therapy options and more.
"We are committed to your success," the letter says. "We are also committed to pursuing consistent, firm, and fair consequences if you continue in the criminal behavior that is not only hurtful to you, but to your family and our community."
The chief also warned criminal offenders, "Our desire to help you will not hinder us from holding you fully accountable for your choices and actions."
Critics of this intelligence-based policing approach say it amounts to improper surveillance and unconstitutional monitoring of people based entirely on their past actions.
"The letter is basically threatening and promising a certain level of harassment and oversight that is in line with the stories we are hearing from the community," said Raniah Elgendi, of the Council of American-Islamic Relations-Florida.
People enrolled in the program can be dropped if they remain crime-free for two years, according to the sheriff's letter. Officials say it is specifically aimed at people who committed violent crimes or drug offenses.
The new effort comes amid a federal lawsuit filed earlier this year challenging earlier versions of the policing program, part of which involved tracking schoolchildren's grades, attendance records and abuse histories to label them potential future criminals.
The sheriff's office says that school program has been scaled back. The lawsuit seeking to end the approach, however, remains pending in Tampa federal court. A spokesperson for the sheriff's office said the prolific offender program is "completely separate" from the school program.
The Associated Press and Fox News contributed to this report.