In a perfect criminal justice system, those who break the law would be punished, rehabilitated and released to live productive crime-free lives. The punishment would fit the crime and the crime rate would go down.
In Florida we do not have a perfect system. We don’t even have a good system. We have good people but our process is disjointed, convoluted and contrary to the intended objectives.
We are doing little more than warehousing criminals and training them to be bigger criminals. The Department of Corrections is a misnomer. They aren’t correcting behavior, attitudes, addictions and mental health problems. We’re basically punishing and releasing.
It’s not all the department’s fault. There is plenty of blame to go around.
The Legislature, myself included, was so determined to be tough on crime that we embraced every opportunity to lock them up and throw away the key.
Over the past two decades we created new crimes, enhanced penalties and took away judicial discretion. We foolishly believed a one-size-fits-all approach to crime and punishment would yield good results. It didn’t.
People were afraid to advocate for criminal justice reform for fear that they would look soft on crime. But over the years the voices for reform have become louder and less partisan.
On the national level, liberals and conservatives are working together for criminal justice reform. In a strange alliance, the Koch brothers are working with the Obama administration along with support from Newt Gingrich and the ACLU. They share the goal of ensuring public safety, preserving human potential and decreasing the excessive costs of our criminal justice system.
Nearly 95 percent of those who go into prison will come out. Wouldn’t it make sense to educate, train and modify their behavior before they do?
The same spirit of bipartisanship exists in Florida. Several business groups — including Associated Industries of Florida and Tax Watch — formed the Smart Justice Alliance years ago to advocate for smart justice reforms. Their goal is to spend every tax dollar wisely to ensure less crime, fewer victims and less recidivism.
Unfortunately, little has changed. We lag behind several other states, including Texas — a state not known for being soft on crime. Texas has reduced its prison population, reduced recidivism and saved money. Why don’t we try to mimic its success?
We have over 102,000 adult inmates costing us about $20,000 each per year or roughly $2.4 billion annually. Almost half — 48 percent of inmates — are serving time for nonviolent offenses while 30 percent are violent felons.
Nonviolent offenders make up most of our prison growth, with nearly 25 percent of the inmate population convicted of drug-related crimes.
We need to consider downgrading certain offenses and using less costly alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders.
Low-level drug offenders would be less likely to return to prison with effective drug treatment programs and less likely to become hardened criminals if separated from violent felons.
Revising “driving while license suspended” laws to remove the felony sanctions would align Florida with most other states, reduce the prison population and save taxpayer money.
Who’s getting out?
Most of them. In fact, 87 percent of inmates in Florida prisons will one day be released into our communities. In 2012, there were more releases than admissions. Of the 32,555 new inmates, 14,000 were repeat offenders. And of the 33,073 inmates released, including murderers, rapists and sex offenders, only 7,500 received some type of treatment.
That’s pretty scary.
We need to do a better job of preparing these individuals to lead a productive, crime-free life after they’ve served their time. We should invest in proven reentry programs to help them transition successfully to life outside the prison walls.
Providing inmates with education, job training, substance abuse treatment, anger management and counseling would pay off by stopping the costly revolving door to prison.
We’ve caused the state’s over-criminalization with legislation that created new crimes and enhanced penalties. Tough-on-crime bills like the 10-20-Life and Three Strikes acts impose minimum mandatory sentences and remove judicial discretion. These laws have tied judges’ hands and forced them to hand down sentences that were — in some cases — unjust.
We need to change those laws and restore discretion to the judges who are uniquely qualified to take individual circumstances into consideration.
The goal of the reform effort is to punish those who commit crimes; rehabilitate, educate, train and prepare them for their eventual release; and to save taxpayers millions of dollars while increasing public safety and reducing recidivism, crime and addiction.
It’s smart, it’s cost-effective and it’s justice.
Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland.