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Drug charges for pot possession being revised statewide

Law enforcement authorities throughout Florida are devising ways to lower the penalties on marijuana violations and to reduce the prison population of people serving sentences for minor nonviolent offenses. In Tampa, St. Petersburg and throughout Pinellas County, authorities are proposing differing revisions to local enforcement procedures regarding drug charges, but the programs in the two cities appear to be simpler and easier to administer than the county proposal. In Tampa, offenders do not get arrested; instead, they are served with a civil citation which carries a first-time fine of $75.

That policy and a similar one in St. Petersburg applies to possessing up to 20 grams of marijuana. Pinellas County has come up with a different proposal, which is to put offenders in a pre-arrest diversion program of community service or rehabilitation classes. All three programs will lessen the likelihood of a small-time marijuana offender being straddled with a lifelong criminal record. The programs will also ease the pressure and economic drain caused by the overcrowding of prisons with minor, nonviolent offenders.

The new approaches mark a dramatic change nationwide in which the over-incarceration problem in the United States is finally being confronted and reformed. It also marks a paradigmatic change away from the prime goal of punishment and toward the more humane characteristics of rehabilitation. The courts, law enforcement and public prosecutors in the county have essentially agreed in principle to the pre-arrest diversion proposal.

The Pinellas program prevents an arrest record under the Florida criminal statutes if the violator successfully meets the pre-diversion requirements. The problem is that law enforcement officers still have the option to treat the matter as an arrest on drug charges and not send it through initially as a pre-arrest diversion. County officials say that there is a safeguard, however, which gives an independent county employee the authority to override the officer's decision and to send an arrest back to the pre-arrest diversion division. Critics say that decriminalization is much more preferable to retaining the criminal attributes and all of the risks entailed in that procedure.

Source: tampabay.com, "Pinellas County plans community service, not jail time, for lesser crimes", Tracey McManus, April 5, 2016

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