MANATEE COUNTY (WFLA) — For the last year, faith leaders in Manatee County have been pushing for Sheriff Rick Wells to implement a new diversion program that would give non-violent, first-time offenders a second chance.

Today, the group met with Wells and other law enforcement leaders from across the county.

They want the sheriff’s office to include traffic-related crime, such as driving with a suspended license, as part of its civil citation program.

Bradenton Pastor Joretha Capers says the change would impact thousands of people, potentially preventing them from having a tarnished record for life. She says court records show nearly half of the first-time misdemeanor offenses committed in Manatee County in 2019 were for minor driving offences.

“Not able to pay a fine, losing your license, and it goes on and on, and on. Criminalization of poverty is a real concern and that is what we are trying to address,” said Pastor Capers.

However, Wells didn’t support including traffic infractions as part of the diversion program. He believes it would be a liability for his office.

“We have had over 51 people in Manatee County alone in the last 10 years that we’re either killed or seriously injured by someone driving with a suspended driver’s license and that is just the ones that we know about,” Wells said.

The sheriff is in full support of giving some other first-time, non-violent offenders a second chance and he says his office has already been doing so through its existing program.

“As far as the adult civil citation, we have always been an agreement with that, we will help those that deserve a second chance,” said Wells.

All agencies across Manatee County are introducing a uniform adult civil citation program within the next 60 days. Manatee County has already rolled its out.

“We are putting it into a format called the adult civil citation diversion program. It will be minor and misdemeanors, such as retail theft, minor marijuana offenses, and it is going to be first time offenders. I will tell you right now, we don’t get a lot of those, so we will be glad to help somebody out that this is the first time they have ever broke the law, because that doesn’t happen very often,” said the sheriff.