What is Pre-Arrest Diversion?

Rusty pipes are collapsing beneath our roads, Georgia Power is raising our energy bills and police are still arresting people for smoking marijuana. Weren’t we going to put a stop to that? Not just yet, but we have made some progress, let me tell you about it!

According to ACC Solicitor-General CR Chisholm, Pre-Arrest Diversion (PAD) is a way of addressing behavior that led to law enforcement interaction, but without creating an arrest or criminal history.

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Welcome to Athens Politics Nerd where we break down commission meetings to bring you the important local news.

Rusty pipes are collapsing beneath our roads, Georgia Power is raising our energy bills and police are still arresting people for smoking marijuana. I thought we were going to put a stop to that? Not just yet, but we have made some progress, let me tell you about it!

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Athena Drive near the CertainTeed facility is closed due to a collapsed culvert pipe underneath the road. These pipes were installed all over Athens about 25 years ago, which was a bad decision, because they only last 25 years on average. That means they’re all about to start collapsing. The commission approved $690,000 for emergency repair at their meeting on March 3 but this is just the beginning. Manager Blaine Williams estimates it will cost about $22 million dollars to repair our stormwater infrastructure over the next 10 years. That means there might be a stormwater fee increase coming soon, but not if Commissioner Ovita Thornton has anything to say about it.

Commissioner Ovita Thornton: “And I totally agree, this is very important and it is urgent for the whole community, but I hope our staff is looking at other ways we can fund this. So people of the lowest economic spectrum are not overloaded.”

The new culverts will be made of concrete, which has a much longer lifespan.

Moving on! Have you heard that Georgia Power is raising our energy bills? Yep, about $6 a month this year, with more increases planned over the next two years. They’re doing this to make us pay to clean up their coal ash pollution. Elections for Public Service Commissioner are important, you guys.

Anyway, our county commissioners and Sustainability Officer Andrew Saunders have decided to step up to help us by starting a Community Energy Fund. That passed at the March 3 meeting as well. Uh… but what is a Community Energy Fund? Well, right now, it’s a pot of money that… doesn’t exist yet. But the intention is to help people improve their homes by using incentives for energy efficiency. ACC might also buy solar panels to sell electricity direct to consumers at a reasonable rate. This will all be paid for by diverting some of the franchise fees that governments charge utilities for the use of public space. Future increases in franchise fee collections, if any, will from now on be diverted to the Community Energy Fund, for use in the community. Awesome!

Now it’s time to talk about drugs! Don’t do drugs, kids. Don’t do it. But if you do, I don’t think you should go to jail. Jail may be a buzz-kill, but it really won’t help anything. And I thought our new, progressive mayor and commission agreed with that, don’t they? I mean I guess they do. But they’ve had over a year to decriminalize cannabis and they haven’t done it yet. So what gives?

It’s definitely possible in Georgia. There are communities who have already passed a parallel ordinance to more or less decriminalize cannabis. It gives prosecutors the option of a civil penalty, like a $75 parking ticket, instead of a criminal penalty, like arrest and jail time. It’s not full decriminalization because the state law is still in effect, but it gets us close.

So, why haven’t we done it? ACC Solicitor General CR Chisholm feels that allowing the lesser penalty would be a violation of his oath of office to uphold state law. He’s already said that he would ignore a parallel ordinance even if the commission passes one, and would opt for the harsher state penalty instead. So that’s lame. But, some commissioners feel we should go ahead and pass a parallel ordinance now anyway.

Commissioner Mariah Parker: “There’s no reason why we shouldn’t go ahead with a parallel ordinance. We might have other elected officials that don’t see eye to eye with us about enforcing a parallel ordinance around cannabis possession, but let’s make it their problem, not ours.”

Commissioner Tim Denson: “This body has the power, and therefore the responsibility, to pass a parallel ordinance to further decriminalize marijuana possession under an ounce.”

Commissioner Melissa Link: “I feel confident that most of this body, if not all, supports that.”

A parallel ordinance isn’t happening anytime soon. Even so, I have some good news to report. The commission, in coordination with Solicitor Chisholm, has developed a new program called “pre-arrest diversion” or PAD. Chisholm discussed PAD at a recent meeting of the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement.

Pre-arrest diversion is pretty much in the title. This is a way of addressing behavior that led to law enforcement interaction, but without creating an arrest, or a charge that shows up on a criminal history or a conviction.

Basically, instead of going to jail for cannabis possession, or for another low-level offense like shoplifting, you’d probably be able to opt in to the PAD program as an alternative. And for a cannabis, if it was a first time offense, you’d get off just by paying a $75 fee and taking a 3-hour online course. If you couldn’t afford the $75, you could even choose 8 hours of community service instead.

I caught up with Commissioner Tim Denson, who’s on the pre-arrest diversion committee, to get his take on it.

Commissioner Tim Denson: “This is going to let us have a more flexible, and therefore has the potential at least, to have more humane and compassionate reactions, requirements for people. Rather than doing something that is actually creating more harm than it is good, which is having them be sent to jail, or pay tons of fines, or be put on probation. Again, probation’s not free so you’re actually paying for that probation. So, I have high hopes for this. It’s really going to come down to how it is implemented.”

This program definitely has its critics. One issue is that it’s entirely up to the police and the Solicitor to decide whether you would even be accepted into the program.

Commissioner Mariah Parker: “I do have some reservations regarding things like officer discretion with whether or not someone is deemed as a threat, and therefore whether or not they will chose to go through with the PAD or arrest someone. I think that on racial grounds, that could be weaponized against certain communities.”

Beyond outright discrimination along racial lines, most with a felony or prior conviction are out. Sorry. And once you’ve made it through the program once, it gets harder to be invited in a second time. For a third offense, you’ve got to get the explicit approval of both the Solicitor and the Police Chief, or you’re going to jail!

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good program.

Mayor Kelly Girtz: “It’s a very exciting program, I think it’s groundbreaking in its use in Georgia, in the way that we’re crafting it to the needs of this community, and it’s going to be broadly beneficial.”

But there are flaws, which it makes it all the more frustrating that Mayor Girtz and Solicitor Chisholm are blocking further steps towards decriminalization. But that being said, I think PAD will be effective in stopping some people from going to jail, and from having an arrest on their record. It’s a big step forward from where we are, even if it doesn’t quite get us to where we need to go. We have to keep at it, we’ll get there eventually.

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