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Faith leaders, Manatee County law enforcement discuss adult pre-arrest diversion program

Clergy leaders from the organization STREAM say they want minor traffic-related offenses included in the adult civil citation program.

BRADENTON, Fla. — Law enforcement leaders in Manatee County are still looking into ways to implement a new adult pre-arrest diversion program. 

This comes after calls from a clergy group and some success with a similar program in Sarasota County. Despite the efforts, there are still concerns from the county's sheriff that have limited the scope of who should be included in the program. 

Clergy leaders from the organization STREAM met with Manatee County Sheriff Randy Wells Monday. They want traffic-related offenses included in the adult civil citation program. 

"We want to avoid an arrest record for these people with non-violent misdemeanor offenses because once they have an arrest record, they are really branded for life and we are trying to avoid that," Rev. Glen Graczyk of St. Mary's Episcopal Church said. "Sometimes these people can't pay these fines and we are trying to avoid that."

STREAM leaders want non-dangerous driving offenders to be eligible for the new adult pre-arrest diversion program recommended by the state attorney for the 12th Judicial District, Ed Brodsky.

Wells said, for now, he would not include that category because of various concerns including liability. He expressed concern that people who typically drive with a suspended license or an expired tag often don't have car insurance and are recklessly putting other motorists at risk.

"We're going to write traffic citations," Wells said. "We have a huge traffic problem in Tampa Bay counties with congestion and traffic. Most of them are in infractions already. I'm going to give them an opportunity to pay the fine and move on."

Wells said he would instead expand on other plans of giving grace to first-time non-violent offenders through civil citations.

Manatee County would now include in its adult civil citation program minor misdemeanors such as loitering, retail theft and some marijuana offenses for first-time offenders. 

"I'll tell you right now, I will be glad to help somebody out that this is the first time they have ever broken the law. It doesn't happen very often," Wells said.

Leaders of STREAM said records show out of 8,000 misdemeanors for first-time offenses in 2019, more than 3,500 were driving offenses.

"Many of them for not being able to pay a fine, losing your license and it goes on, and on," Pastor Joreatha Capers of Rogers Memorial United Methodist Church said. "We are pleased for progress and we are praying that there will be a change of heart."

Capers said this amounts to what the group calls a criminalization of poverty which for her is a real concern they say needs to end. 

"The minority population is five times more likely to be in that 8,000 number and the numbers increase," she said.

STREAM applauded Manatee County for leading the way in pre-arrest diversion for minor juvenile cases with nearly 90% going to a civil citation. They said this helps prevent criminal records and a school-to-prison pipeline

"We could be a leader in this adult pre-arrest diversion program as well," Graczyk said.

Local municipalities will take the next 60 days to update their pre-arrest diversion program. Wells said those who don't qualify for pre-arrest diversion but are first-time offenders with driving-related infractions would have options to pay off their fines.

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