Pinellas Co. program aims to keep minor offenders out of courts

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Easing up on criminal sentences, at least when it comes to minor crimes, is the focus of a proposed diversion program in Pinellas County.

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri introduced the Adult Pre-Arrest Diversion program to St. Petersburg City Council members Thursday.

Starting in October, crimes like petit theft, possession of small amounts of marijuana and underage alcohol possession will be among about a dozen minor crimes the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office says shouldn't result in jail time, huge fines or a criminal record.

"Just because they make a bad mistake doesn't mean they're bad people, and the system needs to be able to recognize there's a difference," said Gualtieri.

The program would allow those who committed a minor offense the chance to pay back society through community service: 24 hours for the first offense, 32 hours for a second and third-time offenders would owe 48 hours of service. The program would also offer educational options on shoplifting, anger management and substance abuse, free of charge.

"This is not about dealing with the criminal. This is not about people who commit repeat crimes. This is designed to address people who've committed minor crimes on an isolated basis. There's a big difference and we need to treat those people differently," said Gualtieri.

Gualtieri said the program, which will cost approximately $360,000, should prove far more cost-effective than going through the court system.

"What we're saying is... 'you stole something, now do your community service.' As opposed to get arrested, go to jail, get the booking photo, get the finger prints, go to court, the judge, get the whole thing through the system and then, guess what? You got community service. So let's short-circuit this thing and avoid the record, and get you where you need to be," said Gualtieri.