Avoiding repeated arrests and slowing the revolving door commonly seen in jails of the criminal justice system is possible. However, to accomplish this, counties throughout Tampa Bay should begin addressing the issues of drug addiction and depression more with drug rehabilitation and mental health facilities, less with prisons.

County of Arrest Directly Affects Punishment for Drug Crimes

Poorly Marked Road Directions

A Sept, 2016 article published by the New York Times makes it abundantly clear that in some states, the county where an individual is arrested can directly affect whether the arrestee spends a significant amount of time in prison or receives a lesser sentence in combination with counseling, and/or rehabilitation. Furthermore, according to an analysis by the New York Times, just 10 years ago the likelihood of individuals residing in a suburban, urban or rural county being sent to jail was equal; however, today, individuals residing in small counties are approximately 50 percent more likely to go to prison than those residing in populous counties. In my vast experience within the local criminal justice system, I find this national trend also to be true for the counties in the greater Tampa Bay Area.

An Overview of Sentencing Differences Based on the County of Arrest

Since each county has its own district attorney/county prosecutor, the prosecution philosophy of the those in charge can affect whether an individual who is arrested on drug charges receives time in prison or is ordered to seek rehabilitation at a drug treatment facility.

The majority of rural counties do not have direct access to rehabilitation programs; therefore, rural counties frequently send individuals convicted of drug-related crimes to prison. In addition, minority individuals who are arrested on drug charges in rural areas have an increased risk of being sent to prison. However, hiring an experienced criminal defense attorney who is familiar with the inner-workings of the particular county in which an individual was arrested can make a difference as to whether the arrestee spends time in prison or not. Understanding the practices of the individuals in charge of each county allows an attorney to tailor the client’s defense around those local practices, thus, reducing the risk of the client being sentenced to a substantial amount of time in prison.

Allocating Funds for Rehabilitation Programs is Essential

I believe lack of funding for drug rehabilitation and mental health programs is one of the most significant problems related to high recidivism rates in the Tampa Bay Area. This is especially true for the rural counties in Tampa Bay (i.e., Hernando, Polk and Citrus). Therefore, to combat the current drug epidemic, all counties (rural and metropolitan), could make allocating state and/or federal funds for drug rehabilitation, and mental health programs a top priority. If counties would allocate appropriate funds to these types of programs, overall costs related to the criminal justice system will begin to decline. While serving individuals throughout the Tampa Bay Area, I have witnessed the benefits of these programs, firsthand.

Pretrial Diversion Programs for First-Time Offenders

Some of Tampa Bay's more metropolitan areas, such as the Pinellas County, is working toward reducing the recidivism rates by providing first-time drug offenders with an option other than incarceration, a Pretrial Diversion Program. In fact, participants of this program will continue to have a clean record as long as there are no further violations: As such, these individuals have better future job opportunities than those who are arrested, moved through the criminal justice system and then have charges placed on their permanent records. By implementing Pretrial Diversion Programs, the absence of charges for first-time offenders gives them the ability to work through their drug addiction and mental health issues. Thus, eventually allowing them to seek gainful employment while clean from drugs and without concerns related to a criminal record. I have seen the success of this program with many of my clients.

For Veteran's, PTSD and Depression May Lead to Substance Abuse

It is not uncommon for troops returning home from any conflict to experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and/or depression, which routinely leads to substance abuse. I have seen that veterans do not want welfare or disability; they just want to continue working. Hillsborough County offers one of the best run veteran rehabilitation programs that I have seen in 11 years of practice.

Benefits of the Hillsborough County Program

The Hillsborough County program uses mentors similar to the sponsors used in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) to guide individuals through their program. Furthermore, weekly or bi-weekly drug tests are performed and the benefits being achieved through therapy are discussed. These constant checkups hold the client accountable. Currently, I work with three veterans who are benefiting from this Hillsborough County program.

Reducing the Recidivism Rate in the Tampa Bay Area

I am familiar with the practices of the criminal justice systems in the counties throughout Tampa Bay and dedicated to helping my clients work with the criminal justice system: While a client may be ordered to serve time for his or her crime, I work toward providing solutions to the criminal justice system to reduce the likelihood of a client committing the crime again and being considered a danger to society as a whole.

In my experience, many times, individuals who are offered assistance will take it. This improves the lives of the offenders, as well as those who have contact with the offender following punishment and/or rehabilitation. For this reason, I frequently request that the court allow them to seek assistance through rehabilitation or to allow first-time drug offenders to participate in a Pretrial Diversion Program.

I promote all forms of pretrial intervention programs like drug rehabilitation and mental counseling for my individual client and for expansion at the county level. I have consistently seen the positive results these programs deliver for all stakeholders benefiting from an effective criminal justice system.