Friday, November 28, 2014

A Judge can have the power to save a kid

I read with interest the guest column by Adam Tebrugge of Nov. 25. I thought the timing could not have been better than to print the article the day after the passing of Judge Lynn Silvertooth.
Speaking from personal experience, I know Judge Silvertooth was a compassionate person who saw no need to ruin the life of a young man because of indiscretions and bad decisions.
The judge saw the wisdom in alternatives to incarceration. Were he on the bench today, he would have embraced the Teen Court, Drug Court, Veterans Court, and the Selah Freedom organization for the ways they have worked to reinstate judicial discretion and move away from mandatory minimums that the Florida statutes have imposed upon our courts.
Mandatory minimums have done more harm than good. Taking discretion away from the courts has caused many young people to be cast aside, denied opportunities, even cheated out of the opportunity to serve in our military. The military gave so many of us the opportunity and time necessary for us to grow up, earn the GI Bill, get an education and become responsible citizens -- the time to learn to manage our money, learn discipline, learn a skill, and serve our country.
Mandatory minimums have left our law enforcement agencies trying to find a diverse work force to serve minority or ethnic neighborhoods, because of felony convictions imposed. In the past Judge Silvertooth and other judges like him would have found a way to "save the kid," instead of "sentence the kid."

It is a shame we will never have more judges with the opportunities that Judge Silvertooth had to save kids. Others like Katie Self, Judge Lee Haworth and Carolyn Mason keep trying, but until our Legislature has the courage to ignore the potential fears of the "soft on crime" mailers that others may use against them, we will continue arresting and sentencing young men and women for smoking a bit of marijuana, or just raising hell like I did.
Judge Silvertooth will be missed by all for his compassion and true understanding of justice. I will always remember the man who called me into his office and gave me a chance instead of being the judge who would have had his hands tied by a system that is destined to ruin so many lives.
Your headline was correct: "Judge's reputation was legendary."

Michael S. Bennett, a former state senator, is the supervisor of elections for Manatee County.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Improve justice by providing alternatives to incarceration

     I have been part of the local criminal justice system for 30 years. During that time, I have seen thousands of young men and women sentenced to lengthy jail and prison sentences. Among the reasons for mass incarceration are lengthy "minimum mandatory" sentences that result in addicts being locked up until they are elderly.
Crime rates are significantly down in our area, our state and our nation. Yet the United States continues to have the highest incarceration rates in the world.
The prisons in Florida provide little in the way of education opportunities, addiction treatments or mental health counseling. Inmates are released back into our communities with few prospects for jobs or reintegration.
I had the opportunity to discuss these topics with about 100 engaged citizens who participated in a recent "Einstein's Circle" held at the University of South Florida. As one of the programs produced by the Lifelong Learning Academy, this is an opportunity to interact, engage and discuss important topics with people who can add their own insights and experiences to the mix.
When I use the term "criminal justice reform," I am primarily referring to the elimination of minimum mandatory sentences in order to return discretion to the local judiciary, where it belongs. But I am also talking about ending our overreliance on prison sentences when nothing is done to address underlying issues.
My argument is that we need to expand alternatives to incarceration, like Drug Court and Veterans Court, while making victim compensation a primary goal of the system. It also means working to reintegrate offenders into our communities and not denying them the right to vote after the completion of a court's sentence.

The citizens involved with Einstein's Circle had a lot to add to this discussion. Among the questions asked and points raised were the following:
Does the privatization of the prison system incentivize incarceration over better rehabilitation strategies? Would additional community mental health treatment centers be a good investment?
Why is there resistance to paying for long-term drug treatment as an alternative to imprisonment? Shouldn't we provide extra educational incentives to prisoners in Florida's jails and prisons?
Aren't our limited financial resources better spent on treatment, education and victim compensation? With crime rates down, can we reduce the amount of money spent on law enforcement and corrections? How can we work with employers to give offenders a second chance at meaningful work so that they can make restitution to victims?
Many people in the audience had experience working with offenders. There was general consensus that we need to work with inmates to tackle issues such as illiteracy while they are incarcerated. We can't keep people locked up for years at a time and then release them with out the necessary skills to survive.
We must also strive to understand the disproportionate impact that our present criminal justice policies have had upon African-American citizens and neighborhoods, and adopt educational and community strategies other than incarceration.

At the national level, some progress has been made in reducing prison sentences for certain drug offenses. States such as Georgia, Texas, California and New York have implemented reform efforts that have resulted in significant cost savings and no increase in criminal behavior.
One interesting aspect of these reform efforts is that they are usually bipartisan. Saving scant resources, eliminating wasteful incarceration costs, and providing for more effective treatment of offenders are neither Democratic nor Republican policies. They just make sense.
In Florida, despite our declining crime rates, the prison population continues to increase. We will spend approximately $2.4 billion this year just on housing prisoners. Our state's incarceration rate is 26 percent higher than the national average, and we have the third-largest correctional system in the nation. Approximately 102,000 people are locked up in Florida prisons and many more are housed in our county jails.
Unfortunately, legislators are reluctant to tackle meaningful reform efforts for fear of being portrayed as "soft on crime." As citizens, it is our job to let our elected leaders know that we want them to examine different priorities for our criminal justice system.
For further information on this subject, I recommend that you review websites maintained by the Sentencing Project, the Marshall Project, "Right on Crime -- The Conservative Case for Reform," and others.
Locally I maintain a Facebook page called "Sarasota Criminal Justice Reform," where I collect articles and moderate discussions on this topic. I encourage you to join the conversation.

Adam Tebrugge of Sarasota is a Bradenton-based defense attorney.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Obituary for Judge Lynn Silvertooth

(Here is the Sarasota Herald Tribune article about naming the courthouse after Judge Silvertooth)

Judge Lynn N. Silvertooth, 91, of Sarasota, FL passed away peacefully at his home on November, 23, 2014.  He was born October 26, 1923 in Fayetteville, Tennessee and moved to Sarasota when he was approximately three months old.

He attended Sarasota High School and graduated from Manatee High School where he played on the football team but more importantly, met his future wife, Betty Wilson. He joined the Marines where he served our country with valor in South Pacific.  He was on the island of Guam when the end of the war was declared.  After returning from World War II, Lynn married Betty in 1946, enrolled in the University of Florida and after graduating, entered the University of Florida Law School where he graduated in 1949.

Lynn returned to Sarasota after law school where he started work for attorney Clyde H. Wilson.  Two years later, the Governor appointed him to be an assistant state attorney, covering the area from Manatee County down to Collier County.  After going into private practice for approximately four years, Florida Governor Ferris Bryant appointed Lynn to the 12th Judicial Circuit Court in 1964.  During his time on the bench, Judge Silvertooth served as Chief Judge of the Circuit and handled many high profile cases both here and in other areas of the state.  He was also instrumental in allowing cameras in the courtrooms for the first time.  He retired in 1988 though he continued working as a senior judge. 

In 2006, the Sarasota County Judicial Center was renamed the Judge Lynn N. Silvertooth Judicial Center in his honor.  As then-Chief Judge Robert Bennett remarked, "For generations of lawyers, he epitomized what a judge and court system ought to be about.  He stands as a mold not only for me but for other judges, and hopefully judges to come." He truly led a hero's life.  

In his private life, Lynn was an avid fisherman.  He knew all the best fishing spots in this area and often went to the Florida Keys to fish with his friends.  

Lynn is survived by his beautiful wife, Betty, his beloved cat Garfield, his son Jim and Jim's wife Lisa and their two beautiful daughters, Shelby and Nikki, his son-in-law Gordon and grandsons Robert and James.  Lynn was predeceased by his wonderful and beautiful daughter, Sandy, in 2013.

A service celebrating Lynn's life will be held on Monday, December 1 at 11a.m. at the First Presbyterian Church of Sarasota, 2050 Oak Street, Sarasota, FL 34237.  A reception following the service will be held in an adjoining room.

The family requests that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to Hospice of Sarasota.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Treating Juveniles Like Juveniles: Getting Rid of Transfer and Expanded Adult Court Jurisdiction

The number of juveniles transferred to adult court has skyrocketed in the past two decades and has only recently begun to level off. This symposium article argues that, because it wastes resources, damages juveniles, and decreases public safety, transfer should be abolished. It also argues that the diminished culpability rationale that has had much-deserved success at eliminating the juvenile death penalty and mandatory life without parole for juveniles is not likely to have a major impact on the much more prevalent practices of transferring mid- and older-adolescents to adult court and expanding adult court jurisdiction to adolescents; neither the law nor developmental science justifies the conclusion that juvenile offenders deserve significant mitigation in the non-capital context. If instead juvenile justice is reconceptualized as a preventive mechanism rather than a punishment regime (as laid out in the book I co-authored, "Juveniles at Risk: A Plea for Preventive Justice"), transfer becomes much less alluring. If the primary goal of juvenile justice is public safety, with retribution conceived as an important goal only to the extent that recognizing it is necessary to ensure systemic legitimacy, then maintaining an adult court option for juveniles (and imposing long sentences on them) becomes unnecessary and counterproductive. Appended to this article is another article, written for the ABA’s Criminal Justice Magazine, that fleshes out how a risk management regime would work in a prevention-oriented juvenile justice system.

Christopher Slobogin 

Vanderbilt University - Law School

November 6, 2013

Texas Tech Law Review, Vol. 46, 2013
Vanderbilt Public Law Research Paper No. 13-37 

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Prospects for criminal justice reform in Florida

    On September 26, 2013, the Nilon Report focused on criminal justice reform. Barney Bishop, head of Florida's Smart Justice Alliance, and board certified criminal trial attorney Adam Tebrugge, discussed needed reforms in Florida's criminal justice system.

   You can listen to the entire broadcast here.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Push for leniency in drug sentencing has been a hard sell in Florida

When U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced last week that he was ordering prosecutors to stop charging lower-level drug offenders with “draconian minimum mandatory sentences,” he echoed the refrain from a bi-partisan coalition of activists who have tried and failed to get legislators to change the laws in Florida.
The cost of incarcerating a drug offender for a mandatory three-year prison sentence in Florida is estimated at $58,400, while the cost of treatment in a work release program is $19,130, according to an analysis by the Florida Office of Program and Policy Analysis and Government Accountability.
Meanwhile, Florida’s crime rate is at a 41-year low but the prison population continues to grow with non-violent, first-time offenders, most of whom are snared by undercover agents targeting them for trafficking in small quantities of prescription drugs, the analysis found.
The Florida Department of Corrections reports that taxpayers are spending an estimated $300 million a year to house people incarcerated for drug offenses.
Holder announced last Mondaya major shift in federal sentencing policies, targeting long mandatory terms that he said have flooded the nation's prisons with low-level drug offenders and diverted crime-fighting dollars that could be far better spent.
If Holder's policies are implemented aggressively, they could mark one of the most significant changes in the way the federal criminal justice system handles drug cases since the government declared a war on drugs in the 1980s
As a first step, Holder has instructed federal prosecutors to stop charging many nonviolent drug defendants with offenses that carry mandatory minimum sentences. His next step will be working with a bipartisan group in Congress to give judges greater discretion in sentencing.
The move mirrors new laws adopted in a growing number of states, including Georgia, Kentucky, Ohio and Texas, and is endorsed by a wide range of interest groups. The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights called it “game-changing.” U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, said in a blog post on Friday that it “signaled a significant shift toward justice.”
But whether the announcement will have any affect on Florida, where a bi-partisan group of activists and legislators have tried to shift the focus from drug incarcerations to treatment and diversion, is still an open question.
“It’s time to start using our brains on this issue,’’ said Rep. Dave Hood, R-Daytona Beach, a lawyer and one of several freshman lawmakers who support ending minimum mandatory sentences for certain drug crimes. “Let’s look at the facts and evidence and not the anecdotes. We are ruining lives and families forever.”
Rep. Katie Edwards, a freshman Democrat from Sunrise, sponsored legislation last year that would have allowed judges to depart from mandatory minimum sentences for trafficking in illegal prescription drugs. The proposal passed every House committee but never came to a final vote after being blocked in the Senate.
Now, Edwards and others believe Holder’s announcement could lead to an influx of drug offenders in the state system, putting pressure on the state to adjust.
If a federal prosecutor wants a tougher punishment for a drug offender “he can kick over the case to the state,’’ said Greg Newburn, Florida director of the Families Against Mandatory Minimums, which is working to change state and federal laws. “That could be extremely costly move for Florida if it decides not to change its sentencing laws.”
Edwards warns that caseloads for state public defenders and state attorneys are already at the breaking point and “this may force our hand and really finally get the ball rolling.”
Drug convictions in Florida have surged in the last decade with the abuse of prescription drugs. Convictions for trafficking more than quadrupled between 2006 and 2012 and, in most cases, judges had little discretion but to sentence offenders to a mandatory three years behind bars. Three of four drug offenders have little or no prior criminal history and just as many have substance abuse and addiction problems, the OPPAGA report found.
The cost of housing those prisoners sentenced to mandatory minimum sentences is estimated at $97.5 million a year, according to the Florida Department of Corrections. Only one third received any treatment or re-entry skills and, after release, the data shows, three in five of the drug offenders return on a drug offense.
One of the most active proponents of reforming the system is the Smart Justice Alliance, a business-backed advocacy group that argues the cost savings will allow the state to shift resources into education and economic development. It is backed by non-profit companies who acknowledge they want to get a piece of the state’s prisoner rehabilitation business.
But resistance is strong. In addition to the reluctance of legislators who worry they will be perceived as being soft on crime, the pushback includes prosecutors, the Florida Sheriff’s Association and both public prison officials and private prison lobbyists. The prison advocates have quietly opposed the legislation at a time when there is a surplus of prison beds in Florida.
In 2012, Gov. Rick Scott vetoed a bill that would have allowed nonviolent offenders to receive drug counseling. His argument: prosecutors feared it would mean that some prisoners would leave prison early, and fail to serve the mandatory minimum 85 percent of their sentences.
Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Green Cove Springs, and a former assistant state attorney, agrees in theory that federal prosecutors could steer more cases to state court, crowding the dockets. But he wants to change the law because it makes sense. He plans to file a bill next session to change what he considers a glitch in the law that allows someone to be sentenced to three years in prison on drug trafficking charges for seven pills of oxycodone, treating the less potent prescription drugs the same way it treats 28 grams of cocaine.
The laws were written during the era of Miami Vice and drug cartels, “when the legislative mindset was focused on heroine and cocaine, not opiates,’’ he said.
Edwards’ bill included a similar provision to modify the law for prescription drug crimes. Legislative analysts estimated a savings of $58 million and 576 fewer prison beds. She believes the fear of closing prisons, not the best public policy, is what worked against them.
“There’s an absolute economic incentive to keep people in prison as long as we can so we can profit from them,’’ she said. “Tell me what threat [non-violent, drug offenders] are to society, because they are a threat to the state budget.”
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar, chairman of the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee, said he plans to push for sentencing reforms next session. But, in addition to offering more leniency to non-violent drug offenders who commit first-time crimes, he wants those changes offset with new laws that will increase penalties for crimes against the elderly and children.
“The reason Rep. Edwards’ bill did not become law is it was only beneficial to offenders. It did not enhance public safety,’’ he said. He also opposes the proposals pushed by the Smart Justice Alliance whose goal, Gaetz said, is “a series of reforms that would really create a pipeline for rehabilitation and re-entry services.”
Barney Bishop, director of the Alliance, challenges that characterization.
“I’ve never known Republicans were opposed to companies making a profit, especially a not-for-profit,’’ he said. The reforms will lead to fewer people in the pipeline, he said, adding that only about 33 percent of the state’s 102,000 prisoners receive treatment.
“If we can break the cycle so they don’t come back, we will save hundreds of millions,’’ Bishop said.


The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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