Alachua County’s marijuana problem

by Robert “Hutch” Hutchinson
Alachua County Commissioner

Last year, the Alachua County Sheriff’s office arrested 237 people for simple possession of less than 20 grams of marijuana. These people were booked into jail and had their mugshots posted to the internet.

At first appearance, bail was set, and some were released while others who couldn’t post bond sat in jail a month or more until arraignment, when they would be fined and sentenced to time served.

I sat through more than a dozen such arraignments recently, and all of the defendants were African American. Indeed, those arrested for marijuana are five times more likely to be African American despite the rate of use between blacks and whites being essentially the same.

In the year that Sheriff’s deputies arrested 237 people, her deputies issued only 4 “Notices to Appear” (tickets) for the same offense. Contrast this to many jurisdictions (such as Tallahassee/Leon County) where simple possession is handled almost exclusively with tickets.

In 2010, a study by the ACLU showed that a total of 57,951 people were arrested in Florida for simple possession. Their estimated public cost for arrest, booking, jail time, prosecution/ defense, court time, and supervision of sentence totaled $228.6 million.

Assuming Alachua County’s costs per arrest are in line with the state’s, this means the taxpayer’s cost for these 237 arrests totaled $934,897. And this makes no attempt to add in the personal and societal costs, which can include fines, legal fees, lost wages (or lost job), suspension of driver’s license, and many others.

Last year, I asked the Sheriff if she would consider changing the priority of her department to de-emphasize arrests for these petty, victimless crimes. Last week, I asked her if during the past year, had there been any changes to her philosophy or enforcement practices and she said,”No.”

The organization of County government has our Sheriff serving as an independently elected constitutional officer. She submits her certified budget to the County Commission. Her budget proposal, despite being the largest single expenditure of County government, is only a few numbers with little detail. The County Commission’s job is to set the tax rates necessary to pay for the Sheriff’s budget, as well as those for most other areas of County government (excluding schools and libraries).

Despite the fact that the County Commission is given no details about the Sheriff’s budget, we are required to approve it, and can only reduce the budget amount if we have specific data to support our decision. If the Sheriff disagrees, she can appeal the County Commission’s decision to the Governor and Cabinet.

The question I am posing to the County Commission is: “Should the Sheriff’s budget be reduced by the amount that these simple possession arrests have cost the taxpayer because we believe enforcing these laws through arrest ought to be a low priority, and that funding drug rehabilitation, and mental health treatment <or fill in the blank> should be a higher priority?”

I respect Sheriff Sadie Darnell, and believe her to be the finest Sheriff we could possibly elect, and I appreciate her personal and agency efforts in so many areas.

But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t provide advice or incentives to help her better understand this community’s priorities.

I also believe in the collective wisdom of the County Commission when they select from reasonable options after being provided good information and hearing the spectrum of opinions; so whatever decision they make will be the correct one for this community at this time.  D.

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