City DopeNews

Pre-Arrest Diversion Lets Suspects Avoid Jail for Minor Crimes

The commission passed a resolution last week in support of pre-arrest diversion, a program intended to avoid incarceration for some low-level crimes. Instead of being arrested for cannabis possession, trespassing, shoplifting or underage alcohol possession, those detained by police may now have the option of entering PAD.

According to ACC Solicitor C.R. Chisholm, who helped develop the program, PAD lets first-time offenders avoid having a mark on their record. “Once arrested, they would have a criminal record that will follow them for the rest of their life, even if the case is dismissed,” Chisholm said at a meeting of the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement on Feb. 25.

The program may take a number of forms, depending on the situation. Chisholm put together a committee including representatives from local government and law enforcement agencies to advise him on appropriate components for the program. These will vary based on the offense, and are designed to address the behaviors that might lead to future offenses. For example, a first-time offender caught with less than an ounce of cannabis would have to pay $75 and take a three-hour course designed to reduce recidivism and increase moral reasoning. After completing the course, their case would be dismissed and expunged. If the PAD participant cannot afford the $75 course, they would be allowed to complete eight hours of community service instead. Other PAD program components might include treatment for substance abuse, random drug or alcohol screens, mental health treatment or reconciliation with victims.

This program falls short of full decriminalization. For example, participants would gain access to PAD only if offered by police and if their eligibility is confirmed by the solicitor’s office. Those with a prior conviction on their record would not be eligible. Additionally, it may be more difficult to enter the program again if stopped for a second offense. Re-entry after a third offense would require the explicit approval of the solicitor and police chief. Participants would have between three and six months to complete their assigned program. If they fail to complete it during that time, a warrant would be issued for their arrest.

Entry into the PAD program would also require the consent of the accused. Some may want to fight the charge in court, but if you’re ever offered PAD by a police officer, the advice of Commissioner Tim Denson is to accept. Denson, who is not a lawyer but who serves on the PAD committee, said that the alternative for cannabis possession might be up to one year in jail and/or a $1,000 fine. He said he has “high hopes” that PAD will help prevent many people from facing charges and possible jail time for these low-level offenses. Even so, Denson wants the commission to do more to prevent the harm that he believes mass incarceration is doing to the Athens community.

At the commission meeting on Mar. 3, Denson called for a “parallel ordinance” to decriminalize cannabis, which other cities around Georgia, including Atlanta, have already done. This would allow police to issue citations for cannabis possession, similar to getting a traffic ticket. Until such an ordinance is passed, Denson said that institutions like the local government “are being irresponsible by unnecessarily punishing and harming people’s lives over behaviors that are not a danger to the community.” Commissioner Mariah Parker agreed, adding a concern that police officers might deny access to PAD along racial lines, and it might be “weaponized against certain communities.” 

The resolution in support of PAD passed unanimously, but a parallel ordinance to decriminalize cannabis does not appear to be soon forthcoming. Chisholm opposes such an ordinance, and has said that he would simply ignore it and continue prosecuting cannabis possession under the harsher state law. Mayor Kelly Girtz also prefers pre-arrest diversion to a parallel ordinance.

Culverts Are Collapsing

Drivers on the northeast side of Athens might have noticed that Athena Road is now closed near the CertainTeed plant. This is due to a rusted metal culvert underneath the road that recently collapsed. It has to be replaced with more durable concrete at a cost of at least $690,000.

But it gets worse—there are rusted culverts waiting to collapse across the entire city. “We’re still trying to get a handle on how many of these things are out there,” said Manager Blaine Williams. He estimates that the cost to repair Athens’ stormwater infrastructure might run as high as $22 million over the next 10 years. 

$500,000 is available in SPLOST 2020, which could be supplemented by other SPLOST programs if they come in under budget. Other funding options may include the next TSPLOST, but it’s possible the bulk of the funding will come from the current stormwater fee. Commissioner Ovita Thornton, who opposes stormwater fee increases, voted yes on the $690,000 in emergency funding to replace the Athena Drive culvert, as did the other commissioners. However, she urged that an alternate means of funding future stormwater needs should be found soon.

One advantage to using the stormwater fee to fund utility projects is that all property owners pay the fee—including UGA, nonprofits and churches, which do not pay property taxes. This means the overall bill is lowered for residents, even if it could still be difficult for some low-income homeowners to afford.