You may have heard recently about a program being launched in Pinellas County that will allow certain adult offenders a chance to avoid criminal prosecution. I am happy to announce that the Gulfport Police Department is a strong supporter of this program.
Complete details have not been published yet, but the basic idea is that law enforcement officers will likely soon have the option of referring minor offenses to a diversion program rather than the state attorney's office. The goal will be to recognize that even good people make mistakes once in a while, and we want to help these people to succeed rather than to impede their progress in careers and education.
Eligibility for this program will be limited to just a few misdemeanors will be eligible, and the proposed list includes things like possession of small amounts of marijuana, petit theft, and assault or battery with no or very minor injury. A complete list has been reviewed and endorsed by all law enforcement executives in the county, but it is still pending approval by elected officials in St. Petersburg, which had already been considering a similar program that would have been implemented via city ordinance.
The program is designed to help those who make one or two mistakes; it will not be offered to chronic or repeat offenders. Officers will check criminal history records before making any referrals, and those with relatively recent convictions will not be eligible to participate. Also, there will be a limit to the number of times an individual may take advantage of the diversion program. We want people to make appropriate lifestyle changes, and if they can't do that, then they will continue to be processed in the courts.
Once in the program, those who do not comply with the terms (community service, for example) may end up being criminally charged, and they may not be eligible for future diversions. Successful completion will mean no arrest or criminal record that could show up in a background check.
As Chief of Gulfport Police, I have been at the table for every step of the development of this program, and once it comes into operation, I will ensure that our officers make use of it appropriately. I am thankful for the work the sheriff's office has done and will do to oversee the details of the program, but I am also proud that this is a product of the entire Pinellas County law enforcement community. We work very well together, and this program will be a great example of how our diverse and varied communities can work for the good of all.