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Local leaders come together to find a “pathway for success” for non-violent criminals

Public Defender Jessica Yeary speaks at a meeting regarding high incarceration rates
Brett Rutherford
WFSU Public Media
Public Defender Jessica Yeary speaks at a meeting regarding high incarceration rates

Community leaders believe more can be done to help nonviolent offenders move through the criminal justice system. The Leon County Detention Facility is struggling with high incarceration rates, especially throughout the pandemic. Last month, the Tallahassee Democrat reported the jail was dealing with overpopulation. Many of the inmates are still awaiting trial or sentencing and have been transferred to other nearby facilities.

“For a guy who is criminally-minded, he has to have direction,” says Greg James, pastor of the Life Church International Center, “There has to be a GPS for his life.” James says as a formerly incarcerated individual he wants to advocate for people who are looking for second chances.

On Friday afternoon, Dr. R.B. Holmes hosted a meeting at Bethel Missionary Baptist Church to discuss potential solutions—especially for inmates who are being charged with nonviolent offenses and still awaiting trial.

“It’s so important to be able to bring stakeholders together in criminal justice and have a civil conversation without blaming each other or finger-pointing,” says Dr. Holmes, pastor at the Bethel Missionary Baptist Church, “anytime you can do that, you can bring about healthy resolutions.”

The meeting was attended by community leaders as well as local officials like State Attorney Jack Campbell, Public Defender Jessica Yeary, and County Commissioner Carolyn Cummings.

“We want to find a logical, legal and moral way to reasonably move nonviolent offenders through the criminal justice system, including Violators of Probation (VOP’s) who didn’t commit a new crime,” Holmes said in a statement.

One possible solution is to enter nonviolent drug offenders into diversion programs, keeping them out of jail.

State Attorney Jack Campbell says 31% of offenders have had their charges dropped by going through the State Attorney’s diversion program. When asked if he believed there was an issue with current incarceration rates, Campbell wishes there wasn’t as much crime, but he believes the state attorney’s office is doing a great job diverting nonviolent offenders from jail time.

“People want to talk about the low-hanging fruit,” said Campbell, referring to inmates in custody for violating their probation, “I think that we’re doing a good job of taking out these people who are not serious, they’re not violent, and a minimal intervention will make sure that they’re not back into the criminal justice system again.”

“We’re not wrapping our arms around them with adequate programs,” said Pastor Greg James, “that can help provide them with a pathway to success.” He believes the diversion programs currently in place need more accountability.

Public Defender Jessica Yeary said while diversion programs may work for people charged with misdemeanors, more support is needed for those facing felony charges that suffer from mental illness. Yeary believes those cases, “may look like a super-serious, scary charge, they’re not. I think that’s where we need the intervention in the middle.”

Other attendees included Leon County Sheriff Walt McNeil, Leon County Commissioner Carolyn Cummings. While the goal of Friday’s meeting was to start the conversation, Dr. Holmes said a follow-up symposium is scheduled for April to flesh out a plan to implement ideas about diversion programs, work, mental health, and educational programs for nonviolent offenders.

Follow @bgrutherford99

Brett Rutherford is a reporter and news researcher at WFSU Pubic Media. From Riverview, Florida, he has earned both a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Florida State University. During his time at Florida State, he was a reporter within the sports department at WVFS, the student-run on-campus radio station. In 2020, he served as Sports Director during his senior year and hosted the weekly talk show Tomahawk Talk.

Email Brett: brutherford2@fsu.edu