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Between 2010 and 2015, more than 31,000 drug possession charges were put in the books in Pinellas County, making it one of the top five counties in Florida for drug possession arrests, reports the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch. That means that 547 out of every 100,000 residents in the county faced drug possession charges in that time, either a felony or a misdemeanor. To put this in perspective, Hillsborough County, the big brother with more residents next door, had only 21,000 drug possession arrests in that same time.
Tess Borden was the lead author of the report for the ACLU. Borden does not believe that the best way to handle the problem of drug addiction and overdose deaths is to incarcerate individuals for possessing these substances. She said: “Our default in this country is to criminalize drugs. I grew up with a DARE officer coming to my classroom to say that you go to jail for doing drugs. That’s true and that’s what this report shows. You shouldn’t have to be arrested, prosecuted and convicted in order to get help.”
While some point to the fact that the time period covered by the report occurred during the height of the prescription drug epidemic that took place across the country (when illegal “pill mills” proliferated across the state) as a reason for why those numbers may be very different today, the fact is that those pill mills were in almost every county. Thus, it does not explain away the exceptionally high rates of arrest in Pinellas County.
Though trials are meant to provide a way for those who are arrested to exonerate themselves through evidence and clear their names, to many who are indicted for drug possession, trials translate into high costs, more time in jail before the trial can take place, and potential for an even longer sentence if they plead “not guilty.” For this reason, an estimated 90 percent of arrestees register a plea of “guilty” or “no contest” and simply accept standard sentencing times.
The report also noted that there are more arrests for drug possession in the United States than for any other charge, topping more than 1.25 million arrests each year across the country.
Sheriff Bob Gualtieri of Pinellas County very smartly points out that: “Law enforcement can never and will never solve the drug problem because it is an addiction problem, and as long as you have addiction and the demand, you’re going to have the supply.”
This supports the notion that addiction is not a criminal issue but a medical issue, one that requires treatment and not time spent in jail. More and more, the evidence shows that arresting people on low-level or nonviolent drug-related charges does almost nothing to cut down on crime, addiction, overdose rates, or drug trafficking. All it seems to do is increase the problems of people who are already struggling without putting the tools they need to make their lives better and turn things around into their hands.
Pinellas County, like many counties in Florida, has created a drug court that is designed to connect nonviolent drug offenders with treatment that will help them to get care for addiction. Additionally, they are implementing an Adult Pre-Arrest Diversion Program that will pull out people who would be arrested for possession of personal use marijuana and give them a chance to avoid arrest and a criminal record.
In Sheriff Gualtieri’s opinion, this will not be enough. He expects that a similar investigation will provide the same results in a decade. Says Gualtieri: “In order to break the cycle, something drastic needs to be done regarding prevention and treatment, and you’ve got a lot of good work that’s being done by some organizations. But it’s not enough, and it’s not changing fast enough.”
If someone you love is struggling with addiction, treatment is the best way to help them avoid arrest and subsequent loss of freedom as well as the ongoing risk of accident under the influence and overdose. Are you ready to help your loved one get started in the treatment process?