FL State Attorney Launches Pilot to Stop “Traumatic” Misdemeanor Arrests

    Florida’s Ninth Judicial Circuit has just implemented its first-ever Adult Civil Citation program—a 90-day pilot that will divert people detained on first-time misdemeanor charges away from the criminal-legal system. Instead of being arrested, processed and booked into county jail, those eligible will be required to pay a fine, take rehabilitative classes and complete community service.

    Florida authorized adult civil citation programs in 2018. The state has other such programs in other judicial circuits. But Ninth Circuit covers Orange and Osceola counties, which includes Orlando, so it’s the most centrally located circuit as well as one of the largest.

    Ninth Circuit State Attorney Monique Worrell, the district’s elected top prosecutor who launched the pilot, said she wanted to spare people the harms of physical arrest and everything that follows—being strip-searched, having their fingerprints processed, their names entered into the system, their mugshots taken and then posted online

    “Being arrested and incarcerated is traumatic,” Worrell told Filter. “We should try to avoid that at all costs.”

    Borrowing the words of civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson, she said that people are much more than the worst thing they have ever done.

    However, her stance is that we should “save people” from these traumas only when they are “nonviolent” and do not represent a “public safety risk.”

    Qualifying charges for Worrell’s pilot include first-time possession of drug “paraphernalia,” possession of marijuana under 20 grams and possession of alcohol by people under 21. Other eligible charges seem designed to reduce the criminalization of poverty for street-homeless residents: retail theft of a shopping cart, petit theft, loitering.

    As with the original 2018 civil citation law, the pilot has significant shortcomings. Law enforcement has sole discretion over who participates in it. People can only go through the program once, and only if they’ve never been arrested in the past. And of course, the fines and time-intensive requirements are still harmful punishments for the most vulnerable.

    Florida’s civil citation programs are mandated by state statute. Other states have similar programs, but they are usually created by optional exercises of authority from law enforcement chiefs, often top county prosecutors. Some police departments have also used their discretion in similar ways, namely through the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program.  

    Worrell is the only state attorney who has publicly described arrest as “traumatic.”

    Use of Florida’s juvenile civil citation program, which predates the one for adults, has varied considerably between districts. In the wake of moderate Republican Melissa Nelson defeating “tough-on-crime” radical Angela Corey to become Jacksonville’s state attorney in 2016, the use of juvenile civil citations in lieu of arrest went up by nearly 50 percent.

    Buy-in from local law enforcement—which was reportedly one factor in the broad rollout of Nelson’s juvenile citation program—could still prove an obstacle in the new pilot.

    But Worrell is the most progressive-leaning of Florida’s state attorneys, which could ultimately set the Ninth Circuit program apart. Police officers may have discretion over who gets into the program, but their behavior tends to be influenced by prosecutor mandates, so they’re probably more likely to use the program than under any of the other 19 state attorneys.

    Other reformist state attorneys have made sympathetic statements about the punitive nature of misdemeanor arrests, like Tampa’s Andrew Warren, who in March denounced the practice of “criminalizing poverty.” But Worrell is the only one who has publicly described arrest as “traumatic.”

    Her office intends to work closely with several data analysts on the pilot, and she hopes to release a public-facing data dashboard in the next year.

     


     

    Photograph via United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement

    • Rory is a writer and licensed attorney. Previously, he ran Foglight Strategies, a campaign research services firm for forward-thinking prosecutors, and worked for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, Harvard Law School Fair Punishment Project and the National Network for Safe Communications at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He lives in Philadelphia.

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