Lessons Learned from Louts and Lushes

Maybe we shouldn't throw the book at every petty criminal


It's nearly spring, a time when college students 
 tire of N-dimensional geometry puzzles, the 
 raptures of Wordsworth and the difficulties of deciding if Napoleon was a hero or a monster. Soon they will flock to Florida to spend their parents' money and give Anheuser-Busch distributors a second Christmas.

The dummies will go to Daytona Beach to find chill winds, a cold ocean and sharks too sluggish to nip off hands and feet as they do so playfully in summer. The smarties will head south to Key West, where temps will be in the 80s and the hibiscus in bloom.

Even better, Key West cops will have changed procedures. Instead of making misdemeanor arrests, they will issue Notices to Appear for indiscretions such as carrying open booze and beer containers, wee-weeing on historic buildings, ralphing corn dogs and fries into the crystalline waters, indecorous display of magnificent breasts, and the usual scuffling over women, sports teams and manhood.

The miscreants will be processed immediately through ad hoc Spring Break courts, fined $40 and assigned eight hours of picking up beer cans, sandwich wrappers and used condoms from city streets. The punishment is condign and leaves enough credit on Mater and Pater's cards to stoke local merchants, hoteliers and restaurateurs before the next hurricane comes.

Under this mild regime, roisterers are duly restrained and returned to school without criminal records that cause annoying problems with future job interviews and scholarship applications. It's all quite civilized.

These NTAs work in Key West at Spring Break, but they could work everywhere all the time. Consider Jacksonville's petty offenders. They are, alas, less frolicsome than the college kids. They drink, drug and brawl through the Kit-Kat and other noisome clubs. They holler at, pound, bite, scratch and yank out the hair of their spouses and fuck-buddies. They don't use lights on their bicycles at night and — horrors — often walk on streets instead of sidewalks. Their hygiene is generally as deficient as their grammar. Don't get me started on the haircuts.

But you don't fear them. In general, they will not break into your home at night and pop a cap into your butt just to steal the flatscreen. They're not sticking you up on the street, murdering for hire or fun, burning houses for cash, raping women and children or swiping cars for transshipment to Bahrain. They are failing to pay traffic tickets and suspended license fees — very naughty indeed.

In Jacksonville, cops arrest and jail about 15,000 of these mopes every year. That generates 15,000 cases, about 30,000 hearings in courtrooms under the jail and in the marbleized Palace of Justice, and financial ruin for incalculable numbers of mamas, sisters, girlfriends and grandmas who show up at all hours at the Dye and Crews bond joints to bail these jerkoffs out of the jug and to pay the fines, fees and costs.

No wonder Jacksonville is so damn poor.

But why arrest and jail them? Why not treat them like the college kids, with a Notice to Appear, a fine and some paper and bottle pickup? Heck, with the hordes our cops vacuum up, we could put giant work gangs into safety harnesses and repaint that rusty railroad bridge Downtown. (Yes, CSX, you know how nasty it is.) We might even wash and unlock the restrooms on the Riverwalk so that senior citizens like me could take a leak in private without having to hang it out over the St. Johns. We could clean graffiti, which covers buildings everywhere like gravity.

In Virginia, petty offenders appear not in courts, but in the offices of Justices of the Peace, who are not judges and not even lawyers. They're civil servants who correct the behaviors of careless, foolish, stupid, drunk and drugged humanity outside of the justice system. What they don't do is damage defendants' futures with criminal records and siphon their relatives' savings into the government's coffers.

If Jacksonville ever adopts so enlightened a treatment of misdemeanor miscreants, the city's car dealers, home contractors, dentists and professors should gather in front of the courthouse, chant prayers and sing hosannas. Perhaps they could roast an ox. It would be something new, and tasty,

In Crime City.

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