You Paid For It: $300,000 Pinellas arrest diversion program sidesteps justice system

Three arrested in Pinellas jail smuggling bust (Image 1)

PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) —  In Pinellas County, there are now two ways to avoid going to jail as of October 17th — don’t commit a crime, or commit a crime such a retail theft, battery criminal mischief, disorderly conduct or possession of marijuana that qualifies for Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri’s new program called the Pinellas Adult Pre-Arrest Diversion (APAD). “We’re doing it cost effectively and efficiently and doing the right thing by people because those folks don’t need criminal arrest records,” Gualtieri said.

So far, 166 candidates have completed their APAD requirements of community service, 149 are still active and 92 people have become ineligible or were unsuccessful for one reason or another.

The Sheriff has invested around $300,000 in taxpayer money to hire six workers that administer APAD and process candidates around the clock 365 days a year; so in one sense, taxpayers are paying extra so that deputies do not arrest people.

Gualtieri is running APAD with the blessing of the Pinellas Chief Judge Anthony Rondolino, State Attorney Bernie McCabe, Public Defender Bob Dillinger and Circuit Clerk Ken Burke.

“If we spend a couple bucks to treat people right I’m good with that,” Gualtieri said.

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Under the program, APAD candidates must have clean or recently clean records to qualify and can take advantage of the jail diversion program up to three times, as long as the offenses are more than 90 days apart.

The first time, they receive 24 hours of community service, 32 hours if they get in trouble twice and 48 hours if they commit minor mischief a third time.

After that, it’s off to jail and prosecution in the traditional justice system.

“The reason why it’s a good deal for taxpayers is because I think all taxpayers want to see people treated fairly, and treated right, and you don’t want a system that just wants to jail people for everything all the time,” Gualtieri said.

Sounds like a sweet deal for minor criminals, roustabouts and scofflaws? Not exactly, insists Sheriff Gualtieri — It does help minor bad actors avoid the trauma and stigma of an arrest record or paying so much as a dime for their mischief, but Gualtieri claims it also saves taxpayers the expense of arresting, jailing and adjudicating them.

Gualtieri says it costs about $125 a night to house jail inmates. At that rate, the program will break even after APAD candidates collectively avoid 2400 nights in the Pinellas hoosegow.

“Take a young person who is 20-years-old and has an open can of beer on Clearwater Beach,” said Gualtieri. “That person shouldn’t be saddled with an arrest record for the rest of their life.”

Not everyone agrees Gualtieri’s APAD program is a good deal for taxpayers.

“It’s coming out of their pockets to pay for these programs,” said Judy Cox Stines, owner of Clearwater Bonding Company.

Stines insists it is also hurting her business and other members of the jail bond industry.

“That hits my bottom line and of course this is a business I’m in.  It’s a family business,” Stines said.

‘It’s not our job to fund the bond industry,” Gualtieri responded.

“He’s absolutely right it’s not his job to keep me in business, but it’s also not his job to put us out of business either,” said Stines.

Criminal defense attorneys are also raising constitutional questions about sidestepping the justice system with a “memorandum of understanding” reached between cops, prosecutors and judges. They also question the wisdom of having APAD candidates basically plead guilty under a 48 hour deadline to an offense that they may not have committed.

Stines insists there’s an even more basic reason why giving people get out of jail free “notices of referral” is not a good idea.

“You’re teaching everybody that it’s okay that you can go out and commit these crimes at least three times and its okay,” Stines said.

Whatever the case, if you are a taxpayer in Pinellas County, You Paid For It.

Watch our report tonight at 6 to hear all sides of this new program and judge for yourself if it is a good investment or another government boondoggle.

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