TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Tampa Bay faith leaders are calling for an end to the “criminalization of poverty.”

Hillsborough Organization for Progress and Equality (HOPE) wants Sheriff Chad Chronister to reduce the number of arrests for minor traffic offenses.

Two dozen people with HOPE marched with signs in hand from Centennial Park in Ybor City to the sheriff’s office to deliver postcards.

“More than 30,000 people were arrested in Hillsborough County in 2019 and almost half of those were for non-serious driving offenses —mostly driving with a suspended license many of whom are people who could not pay those fines and fees,” said HOPE co-president Rev. Bernice Powell Jackson.

Jackson calls this the criminalization of poverty.

“It follows you for life,” she said. “It impacts jobs and impacts housing and the family and multitudes of ways.”

HOPE called on Sheriff Chronister to expand his “adult pre-arrest diversion program” to cover adults who drive on a suspended license. They also want the program to support including a Jail Screening and Notice-to-Appear Screening for eligibility.

HOPE said nearly half of all misdemeanor arrests are for non-dangerous traffic offenses and 40% are related to driver’s licenses, which are often connected to poverty or paperwork problems.

The APAD program gives first-time, non-violent offenders a chance to avoid tarnishing their record with an arrest.

“We can actually give you our policy which outlines we do not arrest anyone for these kinds of traffic citations,” said Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Amanda Granit.

The agency said Chronister not only spearheaded the creation of the Adult Pre-Arrest Division Program and the Juvenile Arrest Avoidance Program, but he has also continuously worked to evaluate and expand these programs.

“We are constantly working alongside our criminal justice partners to find alternatives to arrests when offenses are deemed minor,” said Sheriff Chad Chronister. “I remain committed to the continuous review of programs such as Adult Pre-Arrest Diversion and regularly consider potential additional offenses and how such inclusion will benefit our citizens and the safety of our community.”

To be eligible for the Adult Pre-Arrest Diversion Program (APAD):

  1. An adult arrestee who agrees to participate in the program. 
  2. Admits to the offense. 
  3. Has no prior DUI, misdemeanor, or felony convictions (a withhold of adjudication is considered a conviction for the purposes of this program). 
  4. Has not been previously arrested for any felony offense. 
  5. Has not been arrested for any misdemeanor offense in the past two years (regardless of the case disposition). 
  6. Has not participated in the APAD within the past two years, or more than twice in their lifetime. 
  7. Prior traffic-related convictions (other than DUI) or juvenile convictions will not be a disqualifier. 8. The steps to determine eligibility are outlined in section V. C. 

HOPE said the sheriff has continuously refused requests to meet with HOPE clergy and leaders for the past year and a half. According to the sheriff’s office, Chronister wrote a letter in February to HOPE ending their relationship after years of trying to foster a professional partnership, which ended in-person meetings.