Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

Get smart on crime, not just ‘tough’

 

OUR OPINION: State lawmakers should revisit easing minimum-mandatory sentencing

HeraldEd@MiamiHerald.com

In Florida, “tough on crime” has evolved into “ignoring the facts,” “beholden to prison builders” and “holding on to my seat in the Legislature for dear life.” Add state lawmakers’ willingness to spend millions to incarcerate some people — money that could be better spent rehabilitating them to live law-abiding lives outside prison walls — and you have Florida’s modus operandi for dealing with its sentencing laws.

Unfortunately, in a state where the governor and lawmakers have little desire to provide healthcare for more than a million uninsured or take another look at the dangerous Stand Your Ground law, it’s a safe bet that they aren’t dying to go to bat for lawbreakers, no matter how minor their offenses.

But they would be going against the slowly rising tide of states, including Georgia, Kentucky, Ohio and — get this! — Texas, that have eased off of draconian sentencing laws and enacted those more in keeping with today’s reality of falling crime rates, bulging prisons, state coffers stretched to the limit and fairness.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder played catch-up last week when he ordered federal prosecutors to step back from charging every last two-bit, nonviolent drug offender with crimes that carry minimum mandatory sentences. Even U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., no friend of the Obama administration, blogged that Mr. Holder’s move “signaled a significant shift toward justice.”

The attorney general didn’t make the policy change because he’s squishy on crime, he did it because he sees what keeping first-time, low-level drug offenders in prison for a long time has cost — in state finances, family stability and human capital.

Mr. Holder is in no way suggesting that such offenders, whether arrested with a small amount of drugs, or on the hunt for prescription drugs, or caught in the same car as a dealer should not have to face the justice system. Rather, he’s looking at the facts. Florida legislators should, too.

As outlined by Herald reporter Mary Ellen Klas this week, it costs Florida $58,400 to imprison a drug offender for a mandatory three-year prison term. The cost of treatment in a work-release program? It’s $19,130, according to the Florida Office of Program and Policy Analysis and Government Accountability. Meanwhile, Florida’s crime rate is at a 41-year low.

But its prison population is growing with nonviolent, first-time offenders, most of them snagged by undercover agents who targeted them for trafficking small quantities of prescription drugs.

These are people who need help, a lot of it. The long prison terms may soothe the tough-on-crime crowd, but it does little to advance the cause of rehabilitation and second chances. The cost of housing those prisoners sentenced to minimum mandatory sentences is estimated to be $97.5 million a year, according to the state Department of Corrections. Only one third received treatment or re-entry skills and, after they were released, three in five return on a drug offense.

State lawmakers had a chance to impose some sanity on sentencing with a modest proposal by Rep. Katie Edwards, D-Sunrise. Last year she sponsored legislation that would have let judges depart from minimum mandatory sentences for trafficking in illegal prescription drugs.

The bill was blocked in the Senate. However, it passed every House committee, an encouraging sign that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are beginning to realize that it’s time to be smarter on crime, and not just tough.

Read more Editorials stories from the Miami Herald

  • Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

    Remember the deficit?

    OUR OPINION: Crisis over, long-term budget problem remains

  • Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

    From tragedy to farce

    OUR OPINION: Latest Guantánamo disclosures further discredit the justice process

  • Worth a thousand words

    The Miami Herald Editorial Board shares the viewpoints of cartoonists from across the country in this Saturday feature called “Worth a Thousand Words.”

Miami Herald

Join the
Discussion

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category