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An Open Letter to the Legislature on Criminal Justice Reform

April 25, 2019 - 7:30am

The Florida Legislature is wrestling again with criminal justice reform because of the persistence of Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, an outspoken advocate for far-reaching reforms who has good intentions.  As a result, the Senate is positioned to pass an omnibus bill, SB 642, while the House is ready to take up a considerable number of bills that individually encompass some of the same issues.

Florida Smart Justice Alliance, the first criminal justice reform group founded back in 2006, is a supporter of criminal justice reform, but admittedly in baby steps.  Some of the “bridge-to-far” reforms proposed in the Senate bill are this year’s rehashing of ideas that haven’t been passed previously.

But, let’s start with the parts of the Senate bill that Smart justice supports:

  • raising the felony threshold for theft to $750 which is close to what the $300 limit from 1986 would be worth based on inflation today

  • allowing circuit courts to establish community court programs for certain defendants, requiring the accounting of defendants participating in problem-solving courts in each circuit annually, and requiring Veterans Courts in each circuit

  • allowing defendants who’ve lost their drivers license due to suspensions to have the chance to get their license back so they can support themselves or their families

  • allowing ex-felons to become licensed in certain professions such as barbering, construction, interior design, etc.

  • allowing veterinarians to report suspected animal abuse to law enforcement without notifying the owner

  • making it illegal to perform lewd or lascivious acts in front of a correctional officer at a jail

  • redefining “access” for computer crimes and providing for appropriate punishment for computer-related crimes

  • maintenance of confidentiality of certain information collected in the Criminal Justice Data System

  • requiring the recording of custodial interrogations in certain crimes

  • clarifying the sealing and expunction of criminal records

  • allowing DNA matches for casework for probable cause warrants

  • increasing the penalty for government employees who introduce contraband into a state correctional facility

  • disallowing cellular phones to be introduced or used in a county detention facility 

  • increasing the number of transition assistance specialists at state correctional facilities so they can help returning inmates to find employment; a listing of community reentry programs and a hotline for ex-inmates to use if they need help

  • assist inmates that are veterans in obtaining veteran benefits upon release

  • use of graduated sanctions for low-risk probationers who commit technical violations 

  • allowing crime victims more time to access financial compensation

That’s a pretty comprehensive list, but the truth is that what we disagree with is even more important as it deals with basic principals.  For example, we oppose:

  • reducing the punishment from a felony to a misdemeanor for an individual engaging in sex 

  • with HIV

  • retroactively allowing aggravated assault/attempted aggravated assault to be removed for purposes of 10-20-Life

  • allowing a court to deviate from mandatory minimum sentencing for certain drug traffickers

  • retroactively applying more lenient sentencing for trafficking in hydrocodone and oxycodone

  • allowing non-violent offenders to serve 65% of their sentence instead of the 85% of their sentence

  • repealing all provisions for mandatory direct-file of certain youths to adult courts

Sen. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, asked those of us who “waived in opposition” to SB 642 when it was heard to let her know why we opposed the bill and so let this serve as an open letter to Sen. Harrell and her fellow senators, and the House, that there are elements of this Senate bill which are too much reform and thus will not, in our opinion, promote public safety.

In overview, all of the reforms detailed above are predicated on the promise that current inmates will receive appropriate services while in prison, that will help them to be successful as they reenter society.

Unfortunately, that is a hollow promise.  More than 30,000 inmates are released annually and at best only about 10 percent receive any services at all, such as GED education, substance abuse counseling, or job training, to name just a few.  Therefore, to release inmates without providing them with the tools to succeed, notwithstanding the new reentry resource directory, hotline, etc., is condemning them to failure, and suggesting to the public, that we will still be safe.

Florida has gotten to a historically low crime rate, not because we’ve been lenient, but because law enforcement has put itself on the frontline every day to fight crime.  

Specifically, Smart Justice can’t support, with a clear conscience, the lowering of criminal punishment for HIV sex offenders, nor can we support taking aggravated assault out of 10-20-Life.

To suggest that Floridians support allowing judges to deviate for drug traffickers, mind you we’re not talking about drug addicts who we want to help, but individuals who sell drugs for a living or profit regardless of the consequences to the addict on the street, is simply beyond comprehension.  These traffickers peddle death.

Lighter sentencing for hydrocodone/oxycodone, never.  These drugs KILL.

There were arguments that if nonviolent inmates knew that they only had to serve 65 percent of their sentence this would be an incentive for them.  But there is no incentive to the public if appropriate services aren’t provided and the Senate criminal justice/HHS budget doesn’t do enough to provide these much-needed services.  Without those services, the public is being scammed and public safety will suffer mightily.

If you accept the argument that 65 percent is an incentive, then what will it be next year or the year after, 50 percent?  Whatever happened to the idea that 85 percent is an incentive that you don’t have to serve 100 percent of your sentence?

Direct file is a boogieman argument.  State attorneys have already decreased the number of youths who are charged as adults and if their constituents don’t think so, they can always change state attorneys as has happened in the 4th Circuit.

Floridians shouldn’t have to accept the good along with the bad provisions in SB 642.  The House has a more limited scope of ideas for criminal justice reform. The mainstream media editorialize about wanting “bold” criminal justice reform.  We don’t need bold; we need common sense.

Public safety is Job No. 1, not making reporters and editorial boards happy that something significant passed.  U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio opposed the federal First Step Act because he believed the bad outweighed the good.

Smart Justice agrees and we hope the House will prevail and save us from folks who want too much reform too quickly. This shouldn’t be about emptying prisons to save money, it should be about providing the necessary services first, so that when inmates are released, we’re safe and they have a good chance to succeed. Taking measured steps that ensure public safety is never a weak move, it’s the smart move.

Barney Bishop III is the CEO of Florida Smart Justice Alliance, a center-right criminal justice reform association that is law enforcement-centric.  Smart Justice is about maintaining public safety while advocating for common sense reform.  His email is barney@smartjusticealliance.org

Comments

What about North Carolina has anyone heard anything on if this bill will pass for non violet offenders?

I believe in FIRST STEP ACT. I am curious as to your take on treatment centers as opposed to jail time? I would like to address long term treatment, not short term but there are so many non profit treatment centers available. More so than in the past. This could save tax dollars from preventing jail time if non violent crime is committed. Partnering with them could save millions of dollars.

Public safety is priority and that is why reducing non violent crimes from 85% to 65% through gain time is very important. By giving the prisoners an opportunity to join a program that will teach entrepreneurship, it will not only teach the inmate how to be a productive citizen to society but also give the inmate an incentive to reduce prison time. This is a win win situation for public and inmate. Giving prisoners some form of rehabilitation while during their sentencing goes hand and hand with public safety. If we dont provide inmates with productive ways to their time they are higher risk to become repeat offenders. Lets set the example to the world that we are doing away with outdated laws and fighting for justice for all people.

Public safety is priority and that is why reducing non violent crimes from 85% to 65% through gain time is very important. By giving the prisoners an opportunity to join a program that will teach entrepreneurship, it will not only teach the inmate how to be a productive citizen to society but also give the inmate an incentive to reduce prison time. This is a win win situation for public and inmate. Giving prisoners some form of rehabilitation while during their sentencing goes hand and hand with public safety. If we dont provide inmates with productive ways to their time they are higher risk to become repeat defenders. Lets set the example to the world that we are doing away with outdated laws and fighting for justice for all people.

I believe the reform should pass on my sisters behalf this her first time ever in trouble she has 3 kids2 of which have all have been living on life surporrt and my sister had just had a emergacy c setion for the birth of her twin girls LET ME ASK THE WORLD A QUESTION SOMEONE PLEASE EXPLAIN THIS TO ME BECAUSE I CAN ONLY SEE THAT WASHTIGON COUNTY FL CHIPLEY JUST DIDNT GET THERE FACTS STRAIGHT HERES THE QUESTION /HOW CAN YOU GIVE BIRTH TO TWINS AND ONE BE POSTIVE FOR DRUGS BUT THE OTHER TWIN WAS NEGITIVE AND SO WAS THE MOTHER THEY SYSTEM SCREWD MY SISTER AND I BELIVE THE JUSTICE SYSTEM NEEDS TO GET INVESTAGATED

Here is the Total Truth about Truth in Sentencing. Whatever the sentence length, prisoners must to be able to earn gain-time as an incentive for good behavior. 65% gain-time is the magic number to maximize good behavior and so provide safety to the guards and other prisoners.

State economists recently estimated that taxpayers would save $74 million the first year and $860 million over five years if minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders were reduced from 85 percent to 65 percent. We could reinvest this money into education and programs to help other prisoners. These are real numbers, real money we are wasting incarcerating non-violent offenders for 85% and offering them no programs on top of that. You are stating in your opinion about having no programs the exact reason why we need to reduce the time served percentage so we can save money to use on programs. That's smart justice. https://www.sun-sentinel.com/opinion/fl-op-col-dockery-crim-justice-reform-20190425-story.html

The Senate bill Sb 642 should be passed. Reform in florida is way overdue. People are spending way to much time in prison for non violent crimes. Florida has the harshest penalties in the country. People are doing 15 yrs plus for non violent crimes. With no programs in place to help them once they return to their community. Prisons are overcrowded, understaffed which makes it a more dangerous place. other states like Texas, Georgia and few others have reformed their laws and have succeeded maintaining a lower crime rate. These harsh drug laws in florida we established when cartels flooded the streets of our state. That isnt the case anymore. We need reform. I believe non violent crimes should be reduced to 65%. Give incentive for good behavior and also implement programs to help them stay straight once they return to society.

I believe in Fl FIRST STEP ACT non violent offenders and others deserve a second chance 65% should become in effect in Florida you say why crime is lower now because of law enforcement did you also know some ofvthesevofficersvturn their backsvto some selling herion where others that buy it are set up,because they arent liked. Clean the co law enforcement judges and probation officers up too they do illegal things too why just the inmates you are hard on.pass this law retroactivity

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