Sunday, February 11, 2007

Crist crime bill goes too far:

As attorney general, Charlie Crist failed to persuade state lawmakers to approve his misnamed "antimurder" legislation because of legitimate concerns about the high cost of arbitrarily cracking down on felons accused of violating probation. As governor, he probably will have better luck even though the cost suddenly has more than doubled. It's far too high a price for taxpayers to pay to fulfill a simplistic campaign promise that would limit judicial discretion, further overcrowd county jails and require more than 2,500 new prison beds.

At Crist's request, the Senate Criminal Justice Committee last week unanimously voted to beef up last year's version of the bill by expanding the types of felons who would be automatically jailed on alleged probation violations until a judge decided whether to revoke the probation. If probation was revoked, the possible prison sentences would be dramatically increased. It even would be possible to lock someone up for a term longer than the maximum sentence for the original crime.

No wonder the projected cost over five years has ballooned, from more than $118-million last year to more than $268-million now. Roughly two new prisons would be needed just to house the additional number of felons expected to be returned to prison for probation violations. That's money that could be better spent on other priorities such as health care and education.

Crist kept pushing this proposal in response to the horrific child murders of Jessica Lunsford, Sarah Lunde and Carlie Brucia. Yet it is debatable whether this bill would have applied to Joseph Smith, now on death row for the rape and murder of 11-year-old Carlie. Crist has contended the provisions would have forced Smith back to prison before the attack, but Smith's probation violation involved failing to pay fines. The legislation explicitly does not apply to such probation violations, so suggesting this bill would have saved Carlie's life is misleading at best.

There already has been an overreaction to the murders of those girls that has overburdened local courts and county jails. The Department of Corrections, in an attempt to avoid any blame, adopted a zero-tolerance approach to alleged probation violators and required them to be arrested and jailed until they saw a judge. That helped create crisis situations in overcrowded jails, including Pinellas County's. Hillsborough County judges created a new division to deal with probation violators, and Pinellas judges are expected to take similar action. But reality is even setting in at the Department of Corrections, which has revised its approach to dealing with technical violations of probation to help reduce the number of people in jail just waiting to see a judge.

Now the governor would make a bad situation worse. Nobody wants probationers convicted of the most violent felonies to remain on the street if they commit serious violations. But the antimurder legislation goes beyond reason, applying to felons convicted of such crimes as poisoning food, attempted arson and aircraft piracy. Now the new version - which mirrors a rejected one from 2005 - also would apply to felons previously convicted of such crimes as attempted kidnapping, attempted carjacking and attempted home invasion robbery. The weight given to the probation violation upon resentencing would be doubled.

The high price tag doesn't even include the additional cost to county jails for holding these alleged probation violators until a judge sees them. So just as the governor and state legislators accuse counties of spending wildly and promote property tax cuts, they are poised to pass down another expensive unfunded mandate. That sort of hypocrisy has to stop.

Top-down, arbitrary requirements like this one are poor substitutes for local decisionmaking that is responsible and accountable. The new governor has already made a number of smart decisions by taking a fresh look at difficult issues. This irresponsible legislation is more reminiscent of the old Charlie Crist who exploited crime issues and pandered to voters' fears of random violence. Everyone is anti-murder, and it is understandable that legislators want to help the governor achieve one of his top priorities. But this goes too far, and lawmakers have to rein it in before it's too late.

A St. Petersburg Times Editorial
Published February 11, 2007

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