The city is contemplating civil charges for possessing small amounts of marijuana. The real benefit is the flexibility this would give law enforcement.
In March, the Sarasota city commission directed staff to draft an ordinance that would allow police to issue “civil citations” instead of make arrests for possession of small amounts of marijuana. This would mean fines, direction to social services, or other alternative punishments rather than jail for small marijuana possession offenses.
City Commissioner Hagan Brody, who is championing the change, told the Sarasota Observer: “This does not, and we cannot, preempt state law, which still considers possession a crime. However, they have carved out a way to use non-criminal citation as a tool for law-enforcement to use at their discretion. That’s really what this is: providing law-enforcement another tool in the tool belt to implement smarter justice.”
The recent change in state law to encourage local governments to use civil citations as an alternative to jail comes after years of success not only in other states but in many communities in Florida. Most counties in Florida have used to civil citations for some juvenile marijuana possession offenses for years. And Leon County pioneered extensive use of civil citation use for a range of offenses, including drug possession, with such success it has become a national model.
The Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office has pointed out that not many people are jailed in the county for marijuana possession alone. The main benefit of using civil citations is giving officers more flexibility to find the right way to deal with an offender and make better use of their time focusing on crimes that affect innocent parties, but also avoiding creating criminal records that substantially affect a person’s life for a crime that is better dealt with constructively.
As city staff and commissioners consider how to implement a civil citation program, there are a few lessons learned in other communities that are worth bearing in mind.
- Civil citations don’t seem to work well for people who are repeat offenders. So a system whereby officers check to see if an individual has received prior citations before deciding what action to take is a good practice.
- Indigent and homeless people usually aren’t helped by short jail sentences for possession, and the same can be true for imposing a fine with a citation. It’s important to find the right mix of punishment and help that avoids making the problem worse rather than better. So the idea of a civil citation program is to create multiple tracks based on the situation and circumstances of each individual so the justice system has more options.
- A countywide system of civil citations would make more sense and work far better than just a program in the city, given the shared jail and many shared social services. The City Commission should reach out to the County Commission to see if they can work together on ordinances to make the program countywide and allow city police and county sheriffs to use civil citations in coordination.
- The most frequent criticism of civil citations is that they’re not always applied equally across racial lines. Several studies have found that civil citations are more often applied to white offenders than to African-Americans. So it’s a good practice for there to be transparency and oversight of officer decisions between civil citation and arrests to ensure that criteria are being applied without regard to race.
Done right, this is a great option for Sarasota, one that has worked well in many other communities, and which will build on existing alternative justice and jail diversion approaches used effectively here for several years now.
Dr. Adrian Moore is vice president of the Reason Foundation and lives in Sarasota.