By Tony Marrero, Tampa Bay Times

TAMPA — For several years, Hillsborough County leaders have worked to reduce the number of people who are arrested for minor offenses.

Now, officials are working to expand that effort by addressing some common criminal driving offenses, such as driving without a valid license or insurance.

Details still are being hashed out, but officials say the goal is clear: reduce the number of people who are arrested, saddling them with a criminal record and potentially putting them in a cycle of mounting fines and fees that many can’t afford.

Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren called it “Exhibit A in criminalizing poverty.”

“We want to make sure that we’re not making it harder for people to be law-abiding citizens who can hold down a job and be good parents, and we don’t want to waste criminal justice resources when they should be being spent on the violent offenders who pose the greatest threat to the community,” Warren said. “And I think all of the stakeholders are agreeing on those general goals.”

Warren said officials are discussing an expansion of the county’s Adult Pre-Arrest Diversion Program to include some driving offenses. He is working on a plan with Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister, Public Defender Julianne Holt and Chief Judge Ronald Ficarrotta. All have been instrumental in creating Hillsborough’s adult diversion program as well as a similar program for juveniles.

Created in 2017, the adult diversion program allows first-time offenders with little or no criminal history to avoid an arrest for some offenses by receiving a civil citation and completing certain court-mandated requirements. But criminal driving offenses are not eligible for the program. They include racing, reckless driving and DUI, but also charges such as driving without a valid license or insurance, regardless of the reason.

“We are constantly working alongside our criminal justice partners to find alternatives to arrests when offenses are deemed minor,” Chronister said in a statement responding to questions for this story. “The discussion surrounding driving offenses is still preliminary and evolving. We will continue to evaluate programs, such as Adult Pre-Arrest Diversion, to determine what offenses are fitting and how these programs can benefit our citizens and the safety of our community as a whole.”

Warren said part of the logistical challenge is to ensure law enforcement officers are able to differentiate between, say, first-time offenders who don’t have a valid license because they didn’t pay a speeding ticket versus a driver who is unlicensed due to previous DUI charges or other serious criminal offenses.

“We want to make sure that we’re not putting too much on an officer at the scene to be able to access somebody’s driving history and criminal history to know whether they’re eligible for a citation,” Warren said.

Asked about the timetable for changes to be in place, Warren said he was optimistic it would happen “in the near future.”

Holt said part of the problem is what she called the “exorbitant” cost of traffic-related charges.

“It’s something that truly, truly needs to be addressed, and the Legislature is just not willing to address these things, so we have to find a way to do it locally,” she said.

Warren did not have data on how many criminal traffic cases would be eligible to be diverted, but he noted that it likely would be a significant number of the roughly 15,000 adult criminal-traffic cases opened each year.

The plans came as welcome news to Hillsborough Organization for Progress and Equality, a nonprofit group of more than two dozen local churches that advocate for social reforms. HOPE held its annual Nehemiah Action event on Monday, during which the group invites local leaders and policymakers to get commitments from them on specific issues.

This year, HOPE asked Warren, Holt and Ficarrotta, among others, if they would push to expand the county’s adult citation program to include some “non-safety” driving offenses, such as driving without a valid license. The group noted data from the American Civil Liberties Union that shows Black drivers are disproportionately arrested for traffic offenses in Hillsborough.

Such arrests often lead to “a downward spiral of losing jobs, homes and abilities to provide for families,” Sheree Henley, a HOPE executive board member, said during an introduction to the topic. “People have to make the difficult choice: Do I drive, keep my job or provide for my family, or get arrested? Then when you get arrested, it adds hundreds of dollars of more fines and fees that you can’t afford to pay.”

The crowd gathered at Nativity Catholic Church cheered when Holt and Warren said they were already working on addressing the issue. Chronister was invited but did not attend the event.

Tampa’s newly sworn police Chief Mary O’Connor also told the crowd she supported the move.

The Pinellas equivalent to HOPE, called Faith and Action for Strength Together, also hosted its Nehemiah Action event on Monday and put the same question to officials who attended. None agreed, but all said they were open to further discussions about it.

See original story here.