As other states reformed their criminal justice systems in the past year to reduce their prison populations by updating their sentencing laws and establishing new programs for the re-entry of offenders, Florida remained on the sidelines, according to a new report from the bipartisan U.S. Justice Action Network.
“There’s been some question whether there is enough political will to move forward on criminal justice reforms [in Florida,]” Marc Levin, policy director of the conservative advocacy group Right On Crime, a member of the network, said during a conference call with reporters Monday.
With 2.3 million Americans behind bars at a cost to taxpayers of $80 billion a year, the group advocates for changes to make the criminal justice system “smarter, fairer and more cost effective.” Its end-of-the-year report detailed sentencing reforms made not only at the federal level but in states as legislatures in Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania passed bills to improve re-entry opportunities for felons and reform their criminal forfeiture process in 2015.
Alabama enacted a “justice reinvestment package” to reduce its prison crowding problems. The initiative puts a priority on dedicating prison space to violent offenders while expanding alternatives for nonviolent and low-risk offenders.
Utah reduced sentences for low-level drug possession, and the result has been “significant reductions in prison populations,” Levin said.
Texas “stopped decades of massive prison building and enacted a justice reinvestment plan,” and the incarceration rate dropped 24 percent, Levin said. As a result, the state closed three adult prisons and a half dozen juvenile detention facilities.
In Georgia, Republican Gov. Nathan Deal has elevated criminal justice reform to a top priority. And in Ohio, the Legislature has begun “the most sweeping review of the criminal code in the country” — with the goal of updating its sentencing and criminal statutes, said Holly Harris, executive director of the network.
All this comes as some Florida lawmakers, and Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones, have said they believe Florida incarcerates too many low-risk offenders, at a significant cost to the state.
But state leaders — including Gov. Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi and legislative leaders — have not made criminal justice reform a priority, resulting in cases like Lowell prison for women, where Florida has slashed spending on education and healthcare, even though inmates there have, on average, a ninth grade education, mostly committed nonviolent crimes and need mental health treatment. The prison was featured in an investigative series, Beyond Punishment, that concluded Sunday.
For Deborrah Brodsky, executive director of the Tallahassee-based Project for Accountable Justice, which has been advocating reforms for the past three years, Florida is surrounded by states that are adopting policies that not only reduce crime, but also reduce incarceration and recidivism.
“Look at the map and you'll see Florida is truly an outlier,” she said. “Florida is losing ground as other states are building bipartisan consensus through leadership that is tired of spending more and more money on prisons with poor rates of return and is making changes that invest in a more productive and healthy citizenry.”
Levin noted that efforts by the Project for Accountable Justice and the James Madison Institute have been effective at reforming the juvenile justice system and reducing the number of kids incarcerated in Florida. But to achieve broad-scale reforms in the adult system, the state must officially ask for technical assistance and funds from the U.S. Department of Justice — through a signed letter from the governor, president of the Senate and speaker of the House — which Florida has not done.
“We are working at generating additional momentum,” Levin said of Florida. “It’s been a state that over the last decade has seen a large increase in prison population.”
The Justice Action Network is a coalition of eight conservative and progressive groups that include the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans for Tax Reform, the Center for American Progress, the Faith & Freedom Coalition, FreedomWorks, the Leadership Conference Education Fund, the NAACP and Right on Crime.
Next year, the group plans to target the states of Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and Maryland to make reforms a priority, and it will focus special attention on Louisiana, after the issue became a pivotal issue in the governor’s race.
“It shows these issues are not just good policy, they also make good politics,” Harris said.
Levin said that one key component of all this discussion is the “tremendous opportunity for bipartisanship.” Unlike the “traditional model where both sides are compromising to get something done,” they are able to allow both sides “to embrace their principles,’’ he said.
Look at the map and you'll see Florida is truly an outlier.
Deborrah Brodsky, executive director of the Tallahassee-based Project for Accountable Justice.
Reducing mass incarceration works for conservatives, who want to shrink government, save money for taxpayers and encourage more personal responsibility, while for progressives, the reforms help to keep families together, reducing the likelihood that children will have parents incarcerated, he said.
Meanwhile, many of Florida’s Southern neighbors have adopted “ban the box” legislation that has been introduced in the Florida Legislature for years but has made no headway. The measure prevents a prospective employer from asking about an applicant’s criminal history until later in the screening process.
There are now 19 states that have adopted “ban the box” reforms, including six in the past year: Georgia, Virginia, Ohio, Vermont, Oregon and New York. Private companies such as Koch Industries, Walmart and Target have also adopted “ban the box” as a policy.
Mary Ellen Klas: meklas@MiamiHerald.com and @MaryEllenKlas
Here is a link to the report: http://www.justiceactionnetwork.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/Justice-Action-Network-Year-End-Report.pdf