Tickets instead of jail for minor crimes?

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SARASOTA - Getting arrested for even a minor crime can leave a major mark on your life. Even if the charges get dropped, an arrest can last forever, thanks to Google, and websites like mugshots.com.

A pilot program in Tallahassee and surrounding Leon County will test the idea of giving some people who commit misdemeanors a chance to keep their records clean -- by paying a ticket instead of getting arrested.

But feelings are mixed on whether it should come to the Suncoast.

“Once something gets on the internet, that booking photo, that mugshot photo is going to haunt you for the rest of your life,” says Peter Aiken, a Sarasota defense attorney. He welcomes the idea that first-time offenders who commit minor crimes could face a civil penalty – similar to paying a parking ticket – rather than going to jail. It saves them potential internet infamy – and, for the justice system, cuts costs of putting petty criminals through the legal system. “It's going to save the state tons of money,” Aiken says.

Sarasota County Sheriff Tom Knight remains unconvinced.. “I understand they're trying to find ways to save money in government,” he says. “But you don't save money in government when you're giving people civil citations for being a criminal.” Knight says the county already has things like DUI and drug courts to keep people who stumble once from falling into a permanent life of crime. But if police must decide when to make an arrest, and when to write a ticket, it's only a matter of time, he says, before someone claims discrimination.

“That's going to be a huge problem that could give the perception of the disparate treatment,” he says. Because the program requires offenders to pay all costs related to the case, Knight worries that such a program could create separate legal systems for “the have and have-nots. If you have money, you can buy your way out of minor crimes,” he says. “If you don't have money, you're going right into the system and that's going to show up on your criminal record.”

Juvenile justice programs like teen court give some young offenders a second chance to live without a criminal record.

A group called the Florida Smart Justice Alliance has pushed for the program, modeled after juvenile justice programs that give some young first-time offenders a second chance to live without a permanent criminal record. Knight strongly supports his county's teen court program, but points out that it does not simply write tickets. “There's got to be consequences to actions,” he says.

Aiken argues that consequences need to be commensurate with the crime. “I mean, somebody taking a $4 item, is it really 'go to jail'?” he asks.

Someday, perhaps not.