Justice and Due Process

Second chances for first time offenders

Checking “the box” on every job and housing application to indicate that you have been charged with a misdemeanor in the past is a haunting reality for many Americans. Even committing a small, nonviolent crime can be damning to one’s livelihood years after their conviction.  

Picture Tom, an otherwise upstanding guy who is caught with a few grams of marijuana—his first criminal charge ever. He’s now facing a misdemeanor with heavy fines. Although he poses no threat to the rest of society, he may also face jail time. In this situation, the penalty is far more damaging to his life than the small amount of cannabis ever could have been. Yet, due to the current laws, Tom is threatened with a harsh punishment.

This situation happens over and over to first-time offenders across the nation. Taxpayers suffer the burden of maintaining a jail population while offenders suffer the consequences of a dumb decision they made. What if there was another answer for how to handle low-level, nonviolent crime—something that provided a winning solution for each stakeholder in the game?

Fortunately, there is one possible solution, and some places have already started to implement the new approach: civil citations.

Rather than charging people with a crime the first time they break the law for a minor offense involving no violence, alleged offenders may not be charged at all. Instead, they’re given a fine and a requirement to participate in a diversion program related to the crime committed. If the crime was drug-related, for example, they would partake in a health and safety course about drugs.

Florida implemented a civil citation program for juveniles, a demographic that accounted for for a majority of all arrests in the state. Now, instead of arresting kids and setting their life up for failure because of one mistake, each kid is given a second chance. Since implementation, not only have recidivism rates decreased, but the average savings per civil citation given is over $4,000. This program could easily be expanded for adult misdemeanor charges.

First-time offenders who are given a civil citation can prevent major financial losses by avoiding jail time and a criminal record. Instead, they will be participating in an educational rehabilitation course that won’t continue to be a dark shadow which follows them for years to come. Society benefits from this arrangement by saving taxpayer dollars from being wasted on a jail stay for a peaceful person.

A first-time encounter with the criminal justice system is hopefully also the last. But under the current methods of crime and punishment, people are set up for future failure and recidivism. This is a problem nationwide, and Utah is not an exception. Many who are released from jail or prison have a hard time finding employment which leads some to turn to crime to make a living. This lands them back in the slammer, and the criminal cycle is thus repeated.

If the ultimate goal of our criminal justice system is to ensure public safety, then locking up peaceful lawbreakers who pose no threat to others is probably not the best idea.

Civil citations would provide officers with an alternative tool to enforce the law here in Utah. Giving officers the discretion to give someone a partial break for their first offense would be extremely beneficial for taxpayers, first-time offenders, and the security of all Utahns.