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A Florida sheriff’s department is enrolling residents who’ve committed crimes into a program that subjects them to more police and government scrutiny—and giving them a letter that civil rights advocates called “patronizing and offensive.”
The new program is part of a broader pattern of policing in Pasco County, which is located near Tampa, using data and surveillance in a distinctly “Minority Report”-like fashion. Over the past several years, the department has used those methods to crack down on those who’ve already been through the system, and in some cases, those who haven’t even committed crimes.
A letter to people who’ve been involuntarily placed into this program—classified as “prolific offenders” because their criminal histories include drug or violent offenses, according to the Tampa Bay Times—informs them that they’re under increased surveillance.
“You were selected as a result of an evaluation of your recent criminal behavior using an unbiased, evidence-based risk assessment designed to identify prolific offenders in our community,” read the letter, sent recently by the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office and first reported on by the Tampa Bay Times.
“As a result of this designation, we will go to great efforts to encourage change in your life through enhanced support and increased accountability.”
“We are committed to your success. We are also committed to pursuing consistent, firm, and fair consequences if you choose to continue in the criminal behavior that is hurtful not only to you, but to your family and our community,” the letter adds. (A Pasco County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson told VICE News that the letter is not mailed but rather “handed directly to those selected.”)
The letter informs recipients that their “name and criminal history will be shared with local, state, and federal law enforcement entities and prosecutors.” It also includes contact information for more than a dozen agencies and organizations, but adds: “Our desire to help you will not hinder us from holding you fully accountable for your choices and actions.”
The program is a grant-funded “academic research effort” along with the Department of Justice and researchers at the University of South Florida, a spokesperson said in an email to VICE News.
People who’ve been enrolled from the program can be dropped if they “refrain from criminal activity” for two years, the letter said.
“Your selection for this program is good news,” Pasco Sheriff’s Office Capt. Toni Roach says in a video posted to the department’s website and addressed to people who’ve been enrolled in the program, “because you’ll have the opportunity to receive assistance from the Pasco Sheriff’s Office and several community partners to identify and overcome barriers that have hindered you in your life’s journey.”
“Ultimately, the goal of this program is to empower you to live a lawful, productive and fulfilled life,” the letter says.
But despite the department’s insistence that it’s just trying to help people from falling into a life of crime, civil rights advocates are skeptical. “It is so incredibly patronizing and offensive on so many levels,” the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Bacardi Jackson told the Times.
The department under Sheriff Chris Nocco created a database of people it believes to be more likely to become “prolific offenders” and used it to harass residents, the Tampa Bay Times reported last year. And a separate program also tracked kids’ grades, attendance records, and more in order to predict whether they’d “fall into a life of crime,” the Times reported last year; after an outcry, the sheriff’s department and school board agreed to no longer share school data.
The new effort is unrelated to the previous programs, the Pasco Sheriff’s Office stressed, adding that the initiative doesn't represent “a change in any philosophy or program within the Pasco Sheriff's Office.” But civil liberties advocates question not only its ethics, but its effectiveness as well.
“We know that is not what makes people or communities more safe, this heightened level of surveillance,” Lauren Johnson, an assistant counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, told the Times.