Pubdate: Wed, 04 May 2016
Source: Tampa Bay Times (FL)
Copyright: 2016 St. Petersburg Times
Note: Named the St. Petersburg Times from 1884-2011.
Author: Steve Kornell
Note: Steve Kornell is a St. Petersburg City Council member.
Page: A11


Recent statistics from the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office show that 
although African-Americans are 10 percent of the county population, 
they represent 41 percent of the arrests for minor amounts of 
marijuana. National statistics have prompted the American Bar 
Association and the American Civil Liberties Union to call for the 
decriminalization of the possession of up to 20 grams of marijuana by 
making it a civil violation, punishable by a ticket, rather than a 
criminal offense.

I proposed creating a civil citation program in St. Petersburg in 
October. This proposal does not legalize small amounts of marijuana 
or the other minor offenses covered in the ordinance. It does make 
the punishment fit the crime. No one deserves a permanent criminal 
record or to be forced into drug treatment for possessing small 
amounts of marijuana. No one's future job prospects should be limited 
for littering or stealing a shopping cart.

During a public meeting of the City Council's Public Services and 
Infrastructure Committee in December, we discussed this proposal and 
heard speakers representing the St. Petersburg Police Department and 
the ACLU. At the suggestion of police Chief Anthony Holloway, the St. 
Petersburg City Council decided to send a resolution to the Pinellas 
County Commission asking commissioners to consider passing a 
countywide civil citation ordinance.

Prior to the County Commission scheduling a workshop, Pinellas Clerk 
of Court Ken Burke called a meeting to address this topic. Attendees 
at this meeting included the public defender, the state attorney, the 
sheriff and law enforcement officials from throughout the county. The 
lone presenter at this meeting was a former prosecutor from Hernando 
County who stated that he is 'biased' against any type of civil 
citation program. Not a single person who has been adversely affected 
by the current laws was included in this meeting. The stakeholders at 
this meeting chose to support a diversion program rather than a civil 
citation ordinance, and the Pinellas County Commission supported that 

When it became apparent that a countywide civil citation ordinance 
was off the table, the St. Petersburg City Council chose to move 
forward with a citywide civil citation ordinance. That ordinance will 
be heard for first reading on Thursday.

I believe this is the right thing to do for several reasons. The 
county's diversion program would go into effect at the first offense. 
Every person charged with having a small amount of marijuana does not 
automatically need to be diverted or receive treatment. The St. 
Petersburg civil citation ordinance provides for a ticket with a 
fine, or a community service option in lieu of a fine, for the first 
and second offense. On the third offense, where the offender has 
shown a pattern of marijuana use, a diversion program would become 
mandatory. There are many unanswered questions in regard to the 
county diversion program. Is the diversion program for first-time 
offenders only? What happens to people who fail to complete the 
requirements of the diversion program? In addition to 20 grams of 
marijuana, the county diversion program will include other minor 
offenses such as littering and trespassing. It is not clear if 
diversion will be used for each of these offenses or only for small 
amounts of marijuana. In my view it is premature to favor the county 
diversion program when major details are still unknown.

The St. Petersburg City Council has reached out to county officials 
throughout this process. In a continued spirit of cooperation and 
inclusion, the second reading of the ordinance will not occur until 
we have a committee meeting with all stakeholders. This meeting will 
include Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, St. Petersburg police 
Chief Holloway, an ACLU attorney, the police union, a community 
activist, a Pinellas County commissioner and a person whose life has 
been adversely impacted by the current laws. Having a specific 
ordinance as a starting point will allow for a fair and thorough 
discussion. With everyone at the table, and with open minds on all 
sides, we have a chance to come to an agreement on how to best 
ameliorate the inequities of our current laws.

I look forward to working with my colleagues on the St. Petersburg 
City Council and with officials on the county level to make certain 
our local laws are fair to all.

Let's make the punishment fit the crime.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom