Our state is in desperate need of new approaches to criminal justice. More than 96,000 people are locked in our prisons, many of them elderly and sick, at an annual cost to taxpayers of 2.4 billion dollars. Thousands of these prisoners were not convicted of any crime of violence yet will be locked up for years under harsh sentencing laws. Florida prisoners are provided with few educational or rehabilitative opportunities while incarcerated. In order to pay for the healthcare costs of so many prisoners, the Florida Department of Corrections closed down most drug treatment programs for inmates. What we have is an ongoing disaster that the legislature has yet to fix.
The Florida Campaign for Criminal Justice Reform is a nonpartisan coalition of religious, policy and justice oriented groups seeking to bring common sense solutions to Florida’s criminal justice system. We are focused on safely reducing Florida’s incarcerated population and reducing racial disparities within the criminal justice system. States across the South and the country have shown that criminal justice reform can be done in a bipartisan way that saves taxpayer money, improves public safety, and rehabilitates those that have broken the law. (More information at BetterJusticeFl.com) While 33 states have enacted comprehensive criminal justice reform over the past decade, Florida is not one of them.
Last Monday in Bradenton, members of the campaign met with citizens who have been directly impacted by the criminal justice system. We heard stories from the family members of inmates about the hardship long term incarceration causes. The event was held in Senator Bill Galvano’s district because he has a historic opportunity as the President of the Florida Senate to make criminal justice reform a priority in the next legislative session.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, the Florida Bar convened a criminal justice summit. This unprecedented event brought together judges, prosecutors, public defenders, legislators and advocates in one room to identify and work through issues. Participants received training on recognizing and eliminating implicit bias that can lead to racial disparities in sentencing. We learned about the conviction integrity units prosecutors in Jacksonville and Tampa have established to not only examine cases of innocence, but also to prevent wrongful convictions in the future. Progress has been made in juvenile justice thanks to implementation civil citation programs that provide a meaningful alternative to arrest and prosecution of offenders
The data shows that crime rates have fallen dramatically but our prison population remains basically the same. This is due to the extreme length of many sentences and absence of any meaningful way to review those cases to consider whether the prisoner can be safely released. Florida has more than 100 different “mandatory minimum” sentences that tie judge’s hands and requires them to send people to prison without any chance to consider the facts and circumstances of the crime. While consensus has not been reached on all solutions, there was a communal understanding that there is a lot of hard work to be done if we want a criminal justice system that is fair and in which we can have confidence. However, concerned citizens need to continue to push our legislators to make comprehensive criminal justice reform a priority in our next legislative session.
Adam Tebrugge is a board certified criminal trial attorney with more than 30 years of experience in Sarasota and Manatee counties.
This column was published in the Sarasota Herald Tribune online edition on 10/22/18 and in the print edition on 10/23.