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Hillsborough County rolls out adult court diversion program

Acknowledging they’ve been behind the curve in criminal justice reform, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office will soon join some of Florida’s biggest counties in offering court diversion for adults.

The HCSO announced Wednesday it would begin offering an Adult Pre-Arrest Diversion (ADAP) program for adults 18 years and older beginning Feb. 1.

The move comes after the county tested a pilot program from July through December last year; 215 adults participated, with 52 percent of them successfully completed the program, resulting in no criminal record.

“The reality is people make mistakes,” said Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister at a news conference Wednesday at the agency’s Ybor City headquarters. “By providing this opportunity for nonviolent misdemeanor offenses, these adults within our community will be able to maintain gainful employment, provide for their families and remain productive citizens without being saddled with a criminal record.”

In recent years, some of Florida’s biggest counties have adopted adult pre-arrest diversion programs, starting with Leon County in 2013. Pinellas began its version of ADAP in October 2016.

Yet, under former Chief David Gee, Hillsborough had been resistant, something acknowledged by State Attorney Andrew Warren.

“Hillsborough County had been behind the curve in criminal justice, but we are now moving forward quickly to be on the front lines of the evolution of criminal justice,” said Warren.

“We took our time,” Chronister added, acknowledging that there have been questions about why the county resisted starting the program sooner.

Unlike some other programs around the state, Chronister said Hillsborough’s would be more education-based, as opposed to concentrating on having the offenders pay hefty fees. That includes programs like anger management classes, or alcohol and drug treatment, depending on the offense.

Gee surprisingly stepped down from his position last May, less than eight months after his re-election to a fourth four-year term since 2004. Chronister was immediately chosen by Gee as his immediate successor. Months later, Gov. Rick Scott officially named him the next sheriff.

Last summer, Hillsborough instituted a juvenile diversion program, as have many other counties in Florida. A proposal to make such programs mandatory for every county in the state failed in the Legislature last year.

The ADAP is available for all misdemeanor offenses — except for most violent crimes. An arrest for driving under the influence, lewd and lascivious acts, traffic offenses and disorderly intoxication are among those not eligible for diversion.

Eligibility is for all those over 18 who admit to the offense; have no prior DUI, misdemeanor or felony convictions; have not been arrested for any felony offenses; have not been arrested for any misdemeanor offenses in the past two years, and have not participated in the ADAP within the past two years.

Prior traffic-related convictions (other than DUI) or juvenile convictions will not be a disqualifier.

Hillsborough County Public Defender Julianne Holt said the biggest significance will be for those who have erred will not be arrested and have to live with that mistake for the rest of their lives.

“If you’re arrested for a misdemeanor and you have your photograph taken and put out on the internet,” she said, “that’s where everything starts to go wrong for individual’s lives.”

Holt added the savings to her office will have a ripple effect, starting with a reduction in her extensive caseload.

“That will allow me to reassign misdemeanor lawyers to where we feel we should have the bulk of our work which is in felony circuit courtrooms.”

“We have less people in the jail, which means that every law enforcement officer can be out on the streets really fighting the tough, important crimes,” said Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandy Murman in extolling the virtues of the program.

The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office recently released some statistics on the ADAP program’s first full year. The top three offenses were possession of marijuana, retail theft, and battery.

In all, participants have completed nearly 24,874 community service hours and paid $17,553 in restitution, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

Chronister said misdemeanor possession of marijuana was the top offense in the six-month pilot program that ended last month. Shoplifting was a close second.

Written By

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served five years as political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. Mitch also was assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley and is a San Francisco native who has lived in Tampa since 2000. Mitch can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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