Editorials

Approve task force to start the reformof Florida’s criminal-justice system

Miami Herald Editorial Board

TNS

Florida already has gotten “tough on crime.” Now, it’s time for the state to get smart.

Several jurisdictions throughout the state are enacting criminal-justice reforms that — rather than blindly feed violators, especially young ones, into a justice system that too often offers little wiggle room for common-sense sentencing — are recalibrating, for instance, who gets arrested in the first place.

Florida itself should wisely move in this direction and look for smart, cost-effective statewide reforms that ratchet back on both the human and economic costs of locking people up for long periods of time, even if they are just awaiting trial. The waste of human capital is matched only by the expense of inappropriate, out-of-scale sentences, based on laws enacted decades ago when lawmakers thought harsh prison terms would stem rising crime. Rather, they wreaked havoc on the state’s budgets and in many struggling communities.

Senate Bill 458 and its companion, House Bill 387, would create a criminal-justice task force to do a data-driven deep dive into how the state arrests, incarcerates, sentences and, upon release, supervises offenders. The panel would include the people who have seen Florida’s criminal-justice system from the inside — and its ramifications far beyond courtrooms and prisons: judges, state prosecutors, public defenders, law-enforcement officials, victims’ advocates religious leaders, former inmates.

This is in no way to suggest that the criminal justice system should opt to give violent and repeat offenders a break. Rather, there is, encouragingly, bipartisan support for ensuring that punishment truly fits the crime, while making community safety paramount.

But in Florida, nonviolent offenders can still be put away for years because a judge has little sentencing discretion; prisons have become wholly inappropriate mental-health centers, where treatment is inadequate and staffers are unskilled in dealing with such inmates.

Other states have taken the lead:

▪ Georgia’s Council on Criminal Justice Reform led the state to use prison beds for violent offenders and career criminals, with sentencing alternatives for nonviolent offenders. Before the reforms, Georgia’s prison population was expected to exceed 60,000 by the end of 2016. But it has fallen from 54,895 in 2012 to 52,962 in December 2016. Plus, the number of people held in local jails awaiting transfer to prison has dropped even more dramatically from 5,338 in 2009 to 818 in January. The state has also invested in drug courts — already a staple in Miami-Dade County — and programs to smooth former inmates’ re-entry into the community and reduce recidivism. Georgia estimates it has saved $264 million in averted costs, including not having to build new prisons.

▪ In 2014, at a cost of $26 million, Alabama’s “justice reinvestment” push created a six-year program that included sentencing reforms, as well as investment in post-release supervision and behavioral health treatments. The prison population has dropped from 25,299 in 2013 to 23,318 as of December. The Alabama Law Institute, a state body, says it costs $17,000-18,000 a year to house a prison inmate. The state has not totaled its net savings yet but estimates those savings at about $40 million for the first year.

Here’s just a small, but stunning, comparison that should bring clarity to any doubters in the Legislature. Last year, Miami-Dade County Judge Steve Leifman, who successfully fought to bring a measure of humanity to how mentally ill offenders are treated, told the Editorial Board that the county, “We were spending $218,000 a day, which is about $80 million a year to warehouse people in these really sub-par conditions.” That’s just one subset, mentally ill violators, in just one county.

It’s time for the state get smart on crime. The criminal-justice task force is the best first step.

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