On the campaign trail, Charlie Crist rarely, if ever, mentions a 1995 law that was arguably the most far-reaching legislation of his entire political career — and which used to be a key feature of his tough-on-crime persona.
The law requires Florida prisoners to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences, and it continues to affect thousands of people today.
Crist sponsored the law when he was in the state Senate and touted it repeatedly in his past campaigns as a Republican. But now, campaigning as the Democratic nominee for governor, his website makes no mention of the law — or, for that matter, any other specific criminal justice issue besides medical marijuana.
“It does seem very peculiar that the one thing he is best known for and has pushed more than anything else in terms of public policy is the one thing you hear virtually nothing about in the current campaign for governor,” said Darryl Paulson, professor emeritus at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, in reference to the 85 percent law and other crime initiatives. Paulson, a Republican, knows Crist and used to have him visit his classes.
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Ironically, the law has become a campaign promise in the current election — not for Crist, but for Gov. Rick Scott.
“Over the next four years, Gov. Scott will protect Florida’s 85 percent rule to ensure that we do not lose ground on making our state safer,” Scott spokeswoman Jackie Schutz said, noting that Florida’s crime rate has dropped.
Scott’s campaign website also says he will “protect Florida’s 85 percent rule,” without mentioning the law he’s protecting was sponsored and championed by Crist.
In an interview, Crist defended the law and his support for it but said the times were very different.
“I think it’s a good policy,” Crist said, but noted he would be willing to “revisit” it as governor because of how it has affected people who commit nonviolent crimes.
Crist said the expansion of minimum mandatory prison sentences, something he supported as a Republican legislator, needs to be reviewed, too.
“I think there should be judicial discretion,” Crist said. “You appoint people to make those decisions.”
For Scott, the issue came up in 2012, after the Florida Legislature passed a bill that would have allowed a relatively small group of drug-addicted inmates to move from prison to treatment programs. The measure had bipartisan support and passed unanimously in the Senate and 112-4 in the House.
But Scott killed that plan, saying in his veto message, “This bill would permit criminals to be released after serving 50 percent of their sentences, thus creating an unwarranted exception to the rule that inmates serve 85 percent of their imposed sentences.”
Today, it might seem strange that two decades ago, the government felt the need to pass a law requiring prisoners to serve most of their sentences.
But back in the 1990s, Florida lacked sufficient prison space. The state dealt with the problem by releasing inmates early. They often served one-third, or less, of their prison terms.
In some well-publicized cases, the practice failed miserably.
Eric Pierson of Davie pleaded guilty to cutting a woman’s throat during a Fort Lauderdale-area burglary in 1985 and served four years of an 18-year sentence, the Sun Sentinel reported. Pierson was then convicted of burglary in 1990 and served two of a five-year sentence.
If Crist’s law had been in effect, Pierson would still have been serving the first of those prison sentences in 1994. That’s the year he was arrested on charges of killing a 17-year-old girl, whose battered body was found at a construction site.
Then there was the case of Samuel Pettit, who had 17 earlier convictions and served two years of a 31/2-year sentence before he shot two people in Punta Gorda, killing one. Both victims were prosecutors. The survivor, Kathleen Finnegan, helped lead a group called Stop Turning Out Prisoners (STOP).
The group pushed for a constitutional amendment to force prisoners to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences. That effort died when the Florida Supreme Court ruled in 1994 that the proposed ballot language was not properly worded.
At about the same time, the Florida Sheriffs Association was looking for a legislator to sponsor a law requiring as much. It would not be as solid as a constitutional amendment but still a positive step, they believed. Former Pinellas Sheriff Everett Rice recalls approaching Crist with another sheriff at the state Capitol.
“I think he said the next day, yeah, he’d sponsor it,” Rice said.
Crist’s enthusiasm for the law was evident in a guest column published in the Tampa Bay Times in 1995, after the measure passed a committee. He wrote:
“If my bill passes, we will be forced to keep prisoners in jail for at least 85 percent of their terms. Our next goal should be 90 percent, then 95 percent, then 100 percent. We should not stop until every criminal in the state is serving 100 percent of his or her sentence. Period.”
At the time, when crime was considered one of the state’s most pervasive problems, the law sponsored by Crist — and passed by the Legislature as a whole — had wide bipartisan support. Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles did not sign it but allowed it to become law.
Crist made it a centerpiece of future campaigns. When he ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 1998, the first legislative accomplishment listed on his official bio was the law “which mandates criminals serve at least 85% of their sentences.” As a Republican attorney general candidate in 2002, he touted the sponsorship, saying public safety “has always been an enormous priority for me.”
But on the campaign trail this year, running against a governor who supports the law, Crist rarely brings it up. So why is Crist silent about it now?
“I would hesitate to ever try to put myself inside his mind,” said Republican state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater. But perhaps, Latvala said, it’s because crime is not in the forefront as much as it once was.
“Charlie will say anything to get elected,” Scott spokeswoman Schutz said. “It is no surprise his stance on issues continues to shift.”
“I guess he doesn’t want to be called ‘Chain Gang Charlie’ anymore,” Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe said. Crist got that nickname in the Senate for his support of a different measure, putting some inmates on road gangs.
McCabe said the law was helpful because it makes sentences mean something. Back when 10 years really meant three, he said, “the criminal justice system had little or no credibility anymore.”
Allison Defoor, a former judge, sheriff and Republican lieutenant governor candidate, said the public policy debate has shifted since the days when prisoners served a small portion of their sentences. Many people, even conservatives, now believe that what’s important is to find criminal justice solutions that reduce recidivism. For many, that’s more important than years served.
Serving a full sentence is one thing, but “if you get out and commit another crime within six months ... have we really gained anything?”
Since the law passed, the number of Florida inmates has grown dramatically, rising from 61,992 in 1995 to 100,994 this year, according to the Department of Corrections.
Crist’s law isn’t the only reason for the increase, said Florida State University criminology professor William Bales, a former DOC chief researcher. A 2010 paper co-authored by Bales said the time served by inmates has increased but the tremendous growth in the prison population “was largely attributable to the increase in the number of felony convictions that reflect proportionally the rise in the population of Florida.”
Bales finds it surprising that Crist doesn’t talk more about the law while campaigning. He thinks the law was positive. The results did not turn out to be draconian, he said, and in fact, the study said prisoners have proved “significantly less likely” to commit new crimes since the law took effect.
“I think he should be applauded for what he had so much to do with,” Bales said, “but you don’t hear about it, which is kind of strange.”
Tampa Bay Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Information from the Orlando Sentinel, the Sun Sentinel and The Associated Press is also included in this report.