Florida can reduce prison population

Herman Lindsey, right, hugs a supporter near Florida State Prison. He was the state’s 23rd person exonerated from Death Row.
Herman Lindsey, right, hugs a supporter near Florida State Prison. He was the state’s 23rd person exonerated from Death Row. Associated Press

Democrats and Republicans working together might sound like a tall tale in the current political climate, but there is a bipartisan movement swelling in the Florida Legislature to reform the state’s Draconian criminal justice laws. It’s reform that’s long overdue, and more Floridians should be calling on their legislators to pass it now.

Before Florida’s legislative session kicked off this month, we announced the launch of a nonpartisan coalition composed of more than a dozen organizations that want to end over-criminalization and over-incarceration without compromising public safety. The Florida Campaign for Criminal Justice Reform supports legislation that addresses decades of failed “tough-on-crime” policies that have caused our state’s prison population to balloon by more than 1,000 percent since 1970.

Florida imprisons approximately 100,000 people today, costing taxpayers $2.3 billion annually — more than the state allocates for higher education. One out of every 104 people is currently locked up, giving Florida the ninth-highest incarceration rate in the country. In addition, one out of 54 residents is under some kind of supervision by the criminal-justice system.

A majority of states across the South — and across the country — are leaving Florida behind as they adopt bipartisan plans for criminal-justice reform. We must step up and show the country that we know how to take care of our people. Florida’s antiquated laws have put too many people behind bars for too long and at a taxpayer cost that could be better used to help families rather than fracture them.

At Legion Park, we recently hosted the Miami Criminal Justice Reform Forum to discuss the economic, social, and political impact that spending $2.3 billion dollars to incarcerate 100,000 poeple has on Florida. Panelists included Floridians such as Herman Lindsey of Miami, who spent more than three years on Death Row before being exonerated by the Florida Supreme Court.

Lindsey also joined us earlier in March when we invited faith leaders, criminal-justice experts, formerly incarcerated persons and law-enforcement experts to visit the state Capitol and lobby legislators to approve reform that ensures a fairer, more effective criminal-justice system for Florida.

When Floridians and organizations representing an extraordinarily broad ideological spectrum come together on an issue, legislators take notice. And that’s exactly what lawmakers are doing. Sens. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah; Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens; Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth; and Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg; are among the legislative leaders supporting this reform. A measure being debated in the Florida House and Senate would create a task force to review the state’s criminal-justice system and recommend reforms before the 2018 legislative session.

Other bills being debated would help our children by keeping them from being charged as adults for certain nonviolent offenses and allowing children convicted as adults to keep their voting rights. Another bill would expand the use of civil citations — instead of arrests — for nonviolent, common youth misbehavior. It’s desperately needed. Right now, Florida prosecutes more children as adults than any other state; it’s hurting families and limiting the potential of our state.

Another bill would give law-enforcement officers discretion to issue civil citations to adults committing certain low-level misdemeanors, allowing them to complete diversionary programs and avoid arrest records. Meanwhile, many prisoners are elderly, posing no threat to public safety while costing taxpayers expensive medical care. Legislation expanding compassionate release programs would return eligible senior prisoners to their families while returning a savings to the state budget.

While bills supported by the Florida Campaign for Criminal Justice Reform pass committees in the House and Senate, there is more work to be done for these bills to be signed into law. The Florida Campaign for Criminal Justice Reform has launched a website, betterjusticefl.com, where Floridians can learn more about criminal-justice reform, join the campaign, and learn about how to engage directly with their lawmakers on critical legislation.

We hope you will join our efforts to promote reforms that preserve public safety, improve lives and maximize taxpayer dollars.

Raymer Maguire is manager of the Campaign for Criminal Justice Reform. Scott McCoy is senior policy counsel and interim managing attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Tallahassee office.