For decades, Florida tried to solve its criminal-justice problems through increasingly tough sentencing laws. It didn’t work. Florida’s laws were harsher than other states, and it spent more on prisons and jails than other states — but there was no payoff in increased public safety.
Adjusted for population, Florida has the fifth-highest violent crime rate in the United States. The prison system is so swollen — with a current population of 100,000 — that the state struggles to hire and retain corrections officers. And its $214 billion corrections budget doesn’t include the juvenile system.
In a report last year, the Florida Government Efficiency Task Force focused hard on criminal justice, targeting a handful of specific reforms and pushing lawmakers to investigate others.
Beyond the task force, there’s a broad coalition supporting reform, including conservative mainstays such as the American Legislative Exchange Council, Florida TaxWatch and the James Madison Institute, which just released a major report calling on Florida to rethink its draconian approach to relatively low-level drug offenses.
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Now it’s up to state lawmakers to turn things around. One of the biggest priorities: The creation of a 27-member task force that would take a year to study Florida’s sentencing laws, top to bottom, and recommend overhauls that could save money and mitigate the devastating impact incarceration has on the lives of low-level offenders.
The new task force would have plenty of good ideas from which to choose. Nearly half the states have embraced criminal justice reform, and the results are compelling: Almost all of them saw a quick drop in the amount being spent on prisons, and no backlash in increased crime or other problems. In fact, many states saw decreases in overall crime rates after reinvesting some of the savings in mental health and addiction treatment, particularly for people who hadn’t had much involvement with the criminal justice system, a report by the National Conference of State Legislatures found.
Authorizing the task force should be an easy choice for lawmakers. But the Legislature doesn’t have to wait for its recommendations; there are several measures ready this session:
▪ SB 448, which would expand pre-arrest diversion programs for nonviolent adult offenders, and allow police to issue civil citations for minor offenses such as possession of small amounts of marijuana, trespass and petty theft.
▪ SB 196 and HB 205, would expand the use of civil citations for specific juvenile offenses. In 2016, roughly half of all juvenile cases resulted in civil citations, but some areas are still more prone to arrest young offenders. Lawmakers should require every county to get on board with this initiative. The Senate bill would require law enforcement to use citations for many offenses, including underage drinking, shoplifting and fighting, unless they can provide written documentation as to why a case merits tougher treatment. The House allows more discretion, but would still increase the pressure to consider a citation. House and Senate leaders should find a reasonable compromise; the current situation isn’t fair to young offenders who face arrest for offenses that would draw a citation in other jurisdictions.
▪ Gov. Rick Scott’s call for $25 million more in mental-health funding, which would follow last year’s still-modest $63 million increase. Untreated mental illness is a major factor in offenses ranging from vagrancy to homicide, but some lawmakers are already predicting severe cuts to the mental-health budget. That would be a mistake.
Florida can’t fix its broken, expensive criminal justice system overnight — and there’s still resistance among lawmakers nervous about appearing soft on crime. But with key legislators taking the lead — including Senate President Joe Negron — there should be enough courage in Tallahassee to embrace proven reforms that save money without compromising public safety.
This is shorter version of an editorial that was originally published in the The News-Journal, Daytona Beach.