Pubdate: Wed, 09 Mar 2016
Source: Tampa Bay Times (FL)
Copyright: 2016 St. Petersburg Times
Note: Named the St. Petersburg Times from 1884-2011.


The Tampa City Council should approve an ordinance that favors civil 
citations over arrests for possession of small amounts of marijuana. 
The council gave its initial endorsement to the rule last week and 
should give final authorization when the issue comes up for a vote 
later this month.

There is no need to create potentially life-altering criminal records 
over minor infractions for people who could use a second chance.

Council members voted 6-1 on Thursday to allow people caught with 
less than 20 grams of marijuana to receive a civil citation and pay a 
fine rather than face jail time. Under the proposal, the first 
infraction would cost offenders $75. Subsequent offenses would rack 
up fines of $150, $300 and $450. If the council grants final approval 
and Mayor Bob Buckhorn backs the effort as expected, it could take 
effect as soon as April.

Issuing civil citations for minor crimes has gained broad support 
across the nation as part of a larger movement to end the country's 
overreliance on incarceration for low-level nonviolent crimes.

In addition to needlessly exposing people to the criminal justice 
system, arrests for low-level crimes permanently stain offenders' 
records and can prevent them from obtaining everything from 
employment to housing.

Civil citation programs give offenders another chance. They exist 
piecemeal around Florida, addressing a variety of infractions and 
meting out punishments that can differ widely among municipalities. A 
statewide effort to broaden and standardize the use of civil 
citations is being considered by the Legislature. It remains the best 
solution for uniform change.

Already, local governments including Hallandale Beach, Fernandina 
Beach and Miami-Dade County have launched civil citation programs 
aimed at minor pot possession that are similar to Tampa's proposal. 
St. Petersburg is considering a similar effort and has asked Pinellas 
County to spearhead a countywide citation program for marijuana 
offenses. Tampa should ask the same of Hillsborough County.

Opponents of Tampa's proposal (including council member Charlie 
Miranda, who cast the lone dissenting vote on Thursday) should stay 
focused on the real issue.

This effort is not about legalizing marijuana for recreational use. 
It also has nothing to do with medical marijuana, which voters will 
consider as an amendment to the state Constitution in November. This 
is about helping people avoid a criminal record and the accompanying 
educational, economic and social stigma it brings.

Law enforcement officials will still be able to use discretion to 
ensure appropriate punishments, which could include arrests for 
violators who abuse the citation process.

In 2015, Tampa police made 1,882 arrests involving less than 20 grams 
of marijuana.

Some of those arrested would have been well served by a citation 
program and fine that hurts their wallets but leaves them without a 
criminal record.

It is too late for offenders who have already been charged with 
misdemeanor marijuana possession, as the civil citation program would 
not be retroactive. But the city should make a difference going forward.
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