Monday, December 22, 2008

The Florida Criminal Justice System Needs Reform

That Florida's prison population has now reached 100,000 inmates is not a point of pride. It is, quite likely, a designation that should give all thoughtful people Floridians a chance to consider whether there is a way to turn things around and reduce the need to keep building more prisons.

As Department of Corrections Secretary Walt McNeil describes them, the state's 137 facilities could almost be described as having revolving doors. That's because incarceration in and of itself does not do much to change behaviors, habits or crime rates.

The emphasis has absolutely got to shift to rehabilitation programs and education that will alone or together have a chance of sending inmates back into society equipped to live self-sufficiently, without the need for larceny and worse.

"Sometime in the next 20 or 30 years, some 80,000 of those 100,000 prisoners will be coming back to our communities," the former longtime Tallahassee police chief said. "That's why we want to emphasize reentry and rehabilitation, to protect our citizens against them re-offending and preying on society."

This is, clearly, no soft-on-crime approach; it is a realistic, if not easy, way to change one riveting statistic: Of the 40,000 prisoners released each year from the state's 60 prisons, work camps, halfway houses and other lock-ups, roughly 13,000 are back in custody within three years. More than 40 percent come back into the system two and three times.

This revolving door effect, coupled with the current incarceration rates, would mean the state would need to build another 19 prisons of 1,300 inmates each over the next five years.

Taxpayers cannot afford to endlessly build prisons, nor are they really protected by this current system that almost ignores the possibility of reform, rehabilitation and life going forward.

Virtually all leaders in key state agencies, from corrections to juvenile justice to the state judiciary have expressed their support for more alternative programs for substance abusers who turn to crime, and education for those who may prey on society because they are not educated or trained to earn a legal living.

Lawmakers have $2.3 billion worth of worries on their minds, all involving how to cut the costs of government. One abundantly obvious one is to reduce the need to build prisons endlessly when there are cheaper, more effective ways to keep the public safe.

An editorial from the Tallahassee Democrat

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

It's Time to Expand Drug Court Programs

The New York Times reports that drug courts have been a successful experiment. They reduce prison populations and recidivism by substituting treatment and supervision for incarceration in prosecutions of drug offenders.

Experts say drug courts have been the country’s fastest-spreading innovation in criminal justice, giving arrested addicts a chance to avoid prison by agreeing to stringent oversight and addiction treatment. Recent studies show drug courts are one of the few initiatives that reduce recidivism — on average by 8 percent to 10 percent nationally and as high as 26 percent in New York State — and save taxpayer money.
Although there are about 2,100 drug court programs providing treatment at any given time to about 70,000 offenders, that number represents a small percentage of the addicts who are charged with drug crimes. Drug courts have high up-front costs, but they save money in the long term by keeping offenders out of prison and by reducing crime. We need more of them. [more ...]

This criticism of drug courts isn't particularly worrisome:

Some lawyers also say the courts can infringe on the rights of defendants given that offenders usually must acknowledge guilt to enter the court, or in some places have already agreed to a plea bargain and sentence. Thus an addict might opt for drug court to avoid prison or with sincere intentions of going straight, but if treatment fails and he is expelled from the program, he must serve a sentence without having seriously fought the charges. His total time in court custody, between drug court and then prison, may be longer than it would have been otherwise.
True, but defendants who go on probation and get revoked often serve more time than they would have served if they opted for a straight sentence in the first place. That alternatives to incarceration don't always work out is no reason not to provide alternatives.

Nobody compels drug defendants to enter drug court. If they have a strong defense, they should opt for a trial. If they know they can't succeed in a treatment program, they should bargain for the best sentence they can get. Drug court isn't for everyone. Defense lawyers are capable of assessing the offender and the evidence and advising a client whether drug court is right for him or her. After a thorough discussion of the risks and rewards, the defendant can make an informed choice whether to try a drug court program.

Another criticism:

Critics also worry that the courts can monopolize scarce drug-treatment slots at the expense of other addicts seeking help.
That's not an indictment of drug courts, but of the lack of adequate funding for treatment programs.

Mark Kleinman suggests a modified alternative:

Dr. Kleiman advocates a slimmed-down system that does not initially require costly treatment, as drug courts do, but simply demands that offenders stop using drugs, with the penalty of short stays in jail when they fail urine tests. Such an approach has shown promise with methamphetamine users in Hawaii, he said, and because it is far cheaper, it can be applied to far more offenders.
True addicts aren't likely to stop using drugs without treatment, and even then lapses are nearly inevitable (a fact that most drug courts recognize). On the other hand, not every person arrested for a drug crime is an addict who needs treatment to stop using drugs. For those, Kleiman's suggestion (which seems similar to probation with a condition of mandatory urine testing) makes sense.

There isn't a "one size fits all" solution to crime, but incarceration should always be a last resort, reserved for violent or incorrigible offenders. Many alternatives don't work well because they lack the resources to be effective. Studies like those cited in the Times article teach us that funding an expansion of drug court programs is change we can all believe in.

From the Blog "Talk Left"
By TChris, Section Crime Policy
Posted on Wed Oct 15, 2

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

"An enlightened system of justice"

Nobody’s home at the Pitkin County jail.

On Thursday there were just three full-time inmates and five people on work release in a facility that can hold as many as 30.

Inmate numbers in recent months have been some of the lowest since a lull of just two inmates some 20 years ago, jail officials say.

Police Chief Richard Pryor said there have been about 65 arrests in Aspen since early June, but most are misdemeanors and minor charges, including drunken driving, public disturbances, domestic violence and warrant arrests.

“They are mostly charges that people are able to easily bond out on, so they don’t end up staying in jail,” he said. “It’s probably the reason why there aren’t so many folks in jail.”

Jail administrator Don Bird, however, chalks up the low numbers to what he called an “enlightened system of justice” in the upper valley. From law enforcement on the street, to the district attorney, courts and the jail, there is communication and a common goal of rehabilitation, not just human warehousing and punishment, he said.

Bird, who goes to regular conventions of the American Jail Association, said Pitkin County’s situation is unique.

“Everybody’s bursting at the seams except us,” he said.

Jail officials in other counties often write off Pitkin County as being a “boutique jail,” Bird said.

He admits that the local criminal caseload is low, but stressed that “this jail is real. We just have the luxury of not being overwhelmed.”

And the local philosophy of treating the causes of an inmate problems, not just punishing the symptoms, pays off, he said.

Nancy Reichman, professor of sociology and criminology at the University of Denver, agreed.

Without knowing specifics about Pitkin County, Reichman said that there are two major factors that empty or fill a jail: the amount of criminal activity, and how law enforcement officials funnel people into custody.

“The behavior of law enforcement is determinative of how the jails fill,” Reichman said.

She suggested looking farther “downstream” to see why things are so quiet behind bars in Aspen. And treatment in jail also is a factor, she said.

“To understand the jail population, you also need to understand the suite of services available to inmates,” she said, such as substance abuse and mental health help.

Pitkin County Sheriff Bob Braudis, who was instrumental in getting the downtown jail built in the mid-1980s, said that while there are reliable trends to local crimes — such as spikes in theft in offseason or drunken driving in high season — there are no reliable statistics for the inmate population in Aspen.

Like Bird, Braudis chalks up low inmate numbers to a different mentality of law enforcement.

“An empty jail is a perfect jail,” Braudis said. “The reason we have jails is to separate predators from their prey.”

Thanks to the upvalley district attorney’s office and the courts, nonviolent criminals and misdemeanor offenders are able to bond out on charges where, in other parts of the state, they might be stuck behind bars in what he called “the most punitive criminal justice system in U.S. history.”

Most inmates in Aspen are pretrial detainees charged with crimes but who have not yet been tried, Braudis said.

Braudis and others in law enforcement work with judges to ensure a “flexible and fair” bond level that does not simply punish the poor, he said.

“I don’t want a guy to spend days or weeks in jail because he doesn’t have $100,” Braudis said.

He believes in legislative forms that would end mandatory minimums that limit a judge’s ability to find creative solutions for nonviolent offenders.

Meanwhile, Pitkin County’s jail is designed to take the stress off of inmates, Braudis said. Instead of just “tiers and catwalks,” the facility more often sees Bird and inmates sitting down to lunch.

“If you treat someone like an animal, you release an animal,” Braudis said, adding that the jail’s mission is to return people in as good condition, or better physically and mentally, to the community as they were before.

“Other than their freedom, an inmate in my jail should be deprived of nothing else,” Braudis said.

And while jail administrators in other counties are becoming “increasingly punitive,” Braudis said things are just done differently in Aspen.

Bird said inmates in more “relaxed” condition in Pitkin County have a chance to get off of the controlled substances which many abuse. Some are able to see who they really are for the first time.

“The real person is someone that the guy himself doesn’t even know,” Bird said, pointing to cases of recent inmates who cleaned up and prospered during long stays in Aspen.

“We don’t see bad guys in here; we see guys who’ve made bad choices and face consequences for what they did,” Bird said.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Manatee to try a new alternative to jail

MANATEE -- The county's final property-tax revenues, a bit higher than expected, will go mostly into contingency accounts and for a pilot program to allow nonviolent criminals to pay to stay out of jail.
Manatee officials Wednesday spent much of the afternoon putting the finishing touches on next year's $531 million budget. Specifically, they rehashed a list of topics that were "flagged" for more information during a series of budget talks in June.

A slight jump in property values led to an additional $743,000 for the county. Almost half of it will go to the Palmetto Community Redevelopment Agency because that city had much of the higher values. A new set of probation fees will net another $200,000 for the county.

The additional revenues enable the county to spend $155,000 to begin an offender work program. Nonviolent offenders could avoid jail time by agreeing to pay a daily amount or by performing manual labor around the county.

"They're paying to stay out of jail as long as they're doing everything they're supposed to," said Commissioner Ron Getman. "The theory is to reduce overcrowding at the jail without putting a financial burden on the county. It will reduce the number of prisoners in jail and it's a source of revenue."

Getman, a former Florida Highway Patrol troop commander and a member of the Public Safety Coordinating Council, is championing the program. He said it will help prolong the life of the county jail and stave off expensive plans for expansion.

The county will pay money up front for vehicles and additional guard time to watch over the working prisoners, but in the future, officials think fee-paying criminals will offset annual operating costs.

From the Bradenton Herald published July 31, 2008

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Public defenders overloaded

As state agencies struggle under the burden of budget cuts, some public defenders say they cannot adequately handle a growing number of cases with reduced resources.

In Miami-Dade, Public Defender Bennett Brummer is withdrawing from felony cases that don't involve first-degree murder or sexual assaults on children, the Miami-Herald reported. Brummer has said his office can't ethically take more cases than it has time to handle.

Other public defenders in Broward, Pinellas and Pasco counties are considering similar moves, the Herald reported.

Daytona Beach Public Defender Jim Purdy, whose office provides legal representation to the poor in four counties including Volusia and Flagler, says he's working with judges and prosecutors to reduce caseloads for his 57 attorneys.

Although not as drastic as steps taken elsewhere in the state, Purdy plans to expand on a court rule that limits public defender services to those who face jail or prison.

"I believe I will be able to work with the chief judge and State Attorney's Office to find a remedy short of that step," Purdy said. "We're looking at possibly using a court rule that says if the court is not going to impose a jail sentence, then the Public Defender does not have to be appointed.

Reducing the number of misdemeanor cases his attorneys now handle in the 7th Judicial Circuit -- charges like trespassing, disorderly intoxication, petty theft and first-time arrests for marijuana possession -- could reduce his office's caseload by a third, Purdy said.

"We're going to have to come up with some ideas in the way we do business, in order to handle the volume of cases that we have with the number of attorneys we've been allowed," he said.

For the 2007 fiscal year, Purdy's office had a budget of about $8 million. For this year, that amount was reduced to $7.4 million. But the number of cases is growing, now numbered at about 44,166 felony, misdemeanor and juvenile delinquency cases a year. The lion's share of those cases -- 30,558 -- are in Volusia County, Purdy said.

He is also working to get people charged with certain offenses -- like shoplifting -- released from jail with time served.

Other ideas to reduce caseloads could require legislative action, like allowing some people who get their driver's licenses suspended to take a class and get a hardship license. "We're doing what we can as painlessly as we can," Purdy said.

With the national economy weakened by real estate woes, cuts have left public defenders across the country struggling to do their best work for poor clients. The 6th Amendment says the government must pay for legal representation for those who can't afford to hire a lawyer.

In Miami, Brummer has argued successfully three times in the past 32 years that a defendant's right to counsel means that person should get a lawyer who can represent him or her adequately. So a private attorney is appointed.

A hearing on one of Brummer's motions to withdraw from a case is set for Friday.

Virtually no county in Florida has escaped the effect of budget cuts on judicial resources. Purdy says the effects will vary from place to place.

"They will vary from county to county and judge to judge, but it will all take the cooperation of the courts, the prosecutors and the clients," he said.

Local lawyer wants to change rule so only jail cases are served

Staff Writer

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Budget cuts push defenders into corner

If you didn't know better, you would think that Miami-Dade Public Defender Bennett Brummer's response to state budget cuts is an extreme overreaction. Mr. Brummer says that his office will no longer accept appointments to certain noncapital felony cases, such as robbery, burglary, drug possession, grand theft, etc. It's a drastic move that could throw courts into turmoil, and it could end up costing the state more in fees to private attorneys to make up for public defenders' absence than the budget cuts save. The decision is not a bluff or a ploy -- and Mr. Brummer is well justified in taking the action.
No room for trimming

It is true, as Mr. Brummer says, that the public defender's office is underfunded and short-staffed. The state cut the office's 2009 funding by 4.2 percent, and 2008 funding was cut 5 percent. For many state agencies, losing 9 percent funding over two years is painful, but manageable by cutting back expenses, administrative costs, travel, etc. For public defenders -- and for prosecutors and courts, too -- there is little or no room for trimming nonessentials. Ninety-five percent of the public defender's budget is for salaries, the bulk of which is for lawyers. The rest is for investigators, secretaries, clerks and other support staff.

The cuts have forced Mr. Brummer to reduce the number of lawyers at a time when the number of cases is increasing, and on top of cuts made in previous years. In 2004, for example, lawmakers cut funding for 30 of the 82 lawyers the state supported in the office. As a result, some of the 177 lawyers in the office now handle as many as 150 cases each year, including capital (first-degree murder, rape, etc.) and noncapital cases. The problem is not isolated to Miami-Dade, either. Public defenders in Broward, Palm Beach, Hillsborough, Duval and counties throughout the state are handling similar caseloads.

Mr. Brummer says that it is his duty as a lawyer and a constitutional officer of the court to handle cases in a professional manner. When that standard can't be met, he believes that he has the obligation to say so. He has taken this position three times in the past -- in 1978, '81 and '96 -- and each time, the court has upheld his position. Actually, in 1981, the Florida Supreme Court -- not Mr. Brummer -- initiated the action.

Brummer is right

State lawmakers who believe that the problem is about better management of budgets have got it wrong. Sen. Victor Crist, R-Hillsborough, said that lawmakers took pains to make sure state agencies could sustain the cuts and still function.

Mr. Brummer is saying that lawmakers got it wrong with year-after-year cuts in the criminal-justice budget. The facts in the courtrooms and on the streets throughout Florida seem to favor Mr. Brummer's position.

A Miami Herald Editorial published June 4, 2008

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Helping Prisoners Re-enter Society

Most re-entry efforts focus on prison inmates, yet about nine million people cycle annually through our country’s jails. This is roughly 10 times the number who leave prisons.

Jail inmates generally return to their communities after short incarcerations, bringing with them a higher incidence of communicable diseases and mental health conditions than exists in the general population.

Left untreated, these problems add to society’s health burden, emergency room costs and municipal budgets. They also increase the likelihood that inmates will commit new offenses and return to jail again, at public expense.

Jails are required to provide health care to inmates. This mandate creates an opportunity to support re-entry efforts. By linking inmates with community-based doctors, whom they can continue seeing after release, jails can stabilize inmates’ health and help improve the health and safety of the community.

The Second Chance Act is a welcome step. We can do more to support jail inmates by remembering that they are part of our communities and by providing them with community-based health care during incarceration.

Keith Barton
South Londonderry, Vt., May 20, 2008

The writer, a physician, is medical director of Community Oriented Correctional Health Services in Oakland, Calif.

To the Editor:

Financing of the Second Chance Act will support useful services to support the transition from prison to community. But these services must also be accompanied by removal of conflicting and counterproductive policies that stand in the way of community reintegration.

For example, while New York State allocated $3.1 million to assist re-entry efforts this year, the same budget projects an estimated $40 million in revenues from fees and surcharges imposed on people convicted of crimes, 80 percent of whom are indigent.

This crushing debt will leave releasees unable to acquire employment and housing, reverting to a life of crime that jeopardizes the community safety.

If New York is truly committed to public safety and reintegration, it must stop using financial penalties that undermine the intent of legislation like the Second Chance Act.

Marsha Weissman
Executive Director
Center for Community Alternatives
New York, May 22, 2008

Letters to the Editor of the New York Times published May 27, 2008

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Minnesota becomes second state to offer treatment to veterans who commit crimes

Last week, Minnesota became the second state in the nation to pass a sentence-mitigation bill for veterans facing criminal prosecution who suffer from combat related mental health disorders. Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed the bill into law the evening of May 12, meaning courts will now be allowed to consider treatment over incarceration. California passed a similar law in 2007.
The legislation, tucked into the Reentry Omnibus Bill, requires the courts to inquire whether a defendant facing criminal proceedings is a veteran. By establishing military service, attorneys can then order a psychological evaluation. If a veteran is found to be suffering from a combat related mental illness such as post-traumatic stress disorder, the courts will work with the Department of Veterans Affairs so that treatment can be considered as part of the sentencing.

"I really do believe the judges will consider this, and use it as a condition of probation," says Brockton Hunter, a veteran and current legislative chair of the Minnesota Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "Military veterans have a heck of a time asking for help. They're proud and they're trained to believe that they can handle anything."

Instead of seeking therapy, many veterans suffering from mental disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder turn to alcohol and drugs to deal with their problems, says Hunter, who authored the bill with the help of local veteran activist Guy Gambill.
According to a recent RAND report, one in five veterans suffers from psychological problems and many are not getting adequate care. The guerilla insurgency in Iraq and the increased stress of serving multiple tours has led to higher incidents of mental disorders.

"This is just the tip of the iceberg," says Hunter. "We need to prepare for the rest as they continue to come home."
In the last three years, Hunter estimates he's defended at least 25 veterans whose military service can be linked to their crime, including Shoreview resident Tony Klecker, a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars who is now in jail for killing a 16-year-old while driving drunk in South St. Paul.

"This is not the kind of disease that is just going to go away," says Hunter. "Without proper treatment and care this stuff can linger for decades.... Until we get them help, they will continue to present the same problem, the same danger to public safety."

In 1998, the U.S. Department of Justice reported that veterans accounted for 13 percent of state prisoners and 12 percent of jail inmates, with some 225,700 veterans of the U.S. Military incarcerated.
In 2006, 25 percent of Minnesota's male homeless population were veterans, more than half of them deemed to have a serious mental illness.

"The memories of the Vietnam era haunt us all," says state Sen. Linda Higgins-DFL, who was instrumental in the bill's passing. "Everyone my age can remember at least one veteran of that war who came back and was never quite right again. We can't repeat that."

Besides the personal and often devastating social repercussions untreated mental illness can have on soldiers and their families, the RAND report also warns of the economic costs to society associated with veterans suffering from untreated mental health disorders. "Billions of dollars" of government spending can be avoided with appropriate treatment, its authors argued.

"It makes a lot more sense to give them a break now, rather than just throwing them in the slammer and dealing with it on the other end," says Gambill, a former homeless veteran himself. "I can tell you it would have made all the difference in the world for many men I know who are now quite lost or dead."

Gambill is hoping to get a national version of the bill passed by Congress. He has spent the last few weeks in Washington, D.C., lobbying Sen. Amy Klobuchar's and Congressman Keith Ellison's offices for a congressional resolution drawing attention to the nexus between veterans, mental health, and crime.

"We are creating a permanent underclass here in the United States, bagged, tagged, and set on the shelf to stumble along until the lights go out," he wrote in an email from D.C. "For many, this [legislation] is a welcome respite from the piecemeal, haphazard existence we are forced to live."

By Beth Walton Minneapolis-St. Paul City Pages

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Lean times all around, but Florida prisons are booming

Crime might not pay, but we keep paying for criminals.

Especially for offenders in the never-ending War on Drugs.

In a lean budget year that will put the crimp on public schools, universities and health care, the state's prison system keeps pumping iron. The upcoming budget includes $309 million to build three prisons. That's in addition to the $2.5 billion the Department of Corrections gets for annual operating expenses.

The numbers are startling. Five years ago, Florida's prison population was 77,316. By August, the Department of Corrections expects the figure to top 100,000, an increase of 28 percent from 2003.

That far outpaces the general population growth.

It would be one thing if other big states have had similar prison growth. But the two states with larger prison populations, Texas and California, had shrinkage last year. So did New York.

A March report by the Pew Center on the States found that 2.3 million Americans are incarcerated, one out of every 99 adults, the highest rate among industrialized nations. The report had a subsection on Florida titled "A Case Study in Growth."

With almost 100,000 in prisons and another 64,000 locked up in county jails, Florida's adult incarceration rate is even higher. Florida has an adult population just under 14 million.

"Drug policies over the last 20 years account for the growth more than anything," said Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based criminal-justice research organization that advocates alternatives to incarceration.

At 20.7 percent, drug offenders make up the biggest segment of the state prison population, according to the state. Of the 3,307 people sent to prison from Broward last year, 537 (16.2 percent) were for cocaine possession, according to the Broward State Attorney's Office.

Broward sent more people to prison last year than every county except Hillsborough (4,000).

Drop by the Broward County Courthouse on any given day and you'll see a steady stream of defendants put away for nonviolent drug crimes, including possession of cocaine, residue-laden crack pipes and painkillers without prescriptions.

Jeff Marcus, chief of the felony division for Broward State Attorney Mike Satz, said all drug offenders sent to prison have prior felony convictions and first-timers are given the chance to enter treatment programs in drug court or jail.

He said many drug offenders sent to prison also have violent felonies, theft or burglary on their rap sheets.

"These are people who have to be taken off the streets," Marcus said.

Florida's prison population has also grown because of stricter policies. Starting in 1995, criminals had to serve 85 percent of their sentences. And there's been zero tolerance for parole violations.

"Crime in Florida has dropped substantially during this period," The Pew report said, "but it has fallen as much or more in some states that have not grown their prison systems, or even shrunk them, such as New York."

"It's a huge business," said Fort Lauderdale defense attorney Bill Gelin, whose JAABlog Web site has been critical of strict drug prosecutions in Broward. "It's a big employer, and there are powerful interests behind it."

It's also easy politics.

Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein calls the drug war "an abysmal failure" and said it's time Satz shows "better discretion" in certain drug cases. "The easiest arrest for police to make is for drug possession," he said.

Florida spends almost $20,000 a year on each prisoner. Mauer said changing the approach to the drug war to de-emphasize prisons makes long-term economic sense, but it won't be easy.

"It's like trying to close a military base," Mauer said.

"These prisons are mainly in rural areas, and a whole economy sprouts around them."

There's got to be a better way.

by Michael Mayo South Florida News Columnist
posted May 13, 2008

Friday, May 02, 2008

Qualifying concludes for local judicial races

Qualifying for circuit court judicial races concluded at noon today. The following Circuit Court Judges for the Twelfth Judicial Circuit, earned new six year terms without drawing any opposition:
Charles Roberts
Rick DeFuria
Andrew Owens
Robert McDonald
Peter Dubensky
Marc Gilner
Deno Economou
Edward Nicholas

Judge Durand Adams decided not to run for another term. Two candidates qualified to run for his position. The election will be held Tuesday, August 26, 2008. The two candidates are:
Connie Medros-Jacobs
Gilbert Smith Jr.

The State Attorney for the Twelfth Judicial Circuit is Earl Moreland. Nobody qualified to run against Mr. Moreland and so he has earned another four year term.

The Public Defender for the Twelfth Judicial Circuit is Elliott Metcalfe. First elected in 1976, and serving thereafter without opposition, Mr. Metcalfe decided not to seek another term in office. On August 26, 2008, two candidates will face-off in the Republican primary. They are:
Larry Eger
Ron Filipkowski
The winner of the Republican primary will then face the Democratic candidate in the November 4th general election. That candidate is:
Adam Tebrugge

Monday, April 21, 2008

What Happened To Our State of Florida?

Why are we in the worst budget crisis of our lifetime? Why is the criminal justice system on the brink of eliminating vital substance abuse and other rehabilitative programs?

With just two weeks of the legislative session left, it seems almost certain that public schools and public health programs will get whacked by billions of dollars.

In other words, everything is going according to plan.

Not the plan of most Floridians, who will be shocked when the new budget year starts this summer and they find that services that they, their elderly relatives or their neighbors rely upon will be reduced or gone.

No, this is the plan of the anti-government wing of the Republican Party, which has held considerable sway in Tallahassee over the past decade.

These folks fundamentally do not believe that government should be in the business of running schools or paying for medical care for the poor or elderly. Never mind that public education has been a bedrock value of this country for a century and a half, or that society as a whole appeared to agree in the 1960s that the richest country on the planet ought to care for its old and sick.

Such charity, in their view, should be entirely voluntary, and not subsidized by public dollars. True, in times when the economy is rolling along and tax revenues are bountiful, these arguments seem petty and mean-spirited. This is why you didn't really hear them in the Capitol during the late 1990s and through the first half of this decade.

Instead, the proponents of this ideology cleverly took after the other half of the equation through tax cuts — the "starve the beast" approach.

Not starve it immediately, because that draws heaps of bad publicity.

Rather, they tinkered with Florida's already unsteady tax structure and further unbalanced it, so that when the recession came, the hit would be that much more extreme — and require cuts that were that much more severe.

The best example is former Gov. Jeb Bush's dogged elimination of the intangibles tax, which, with few exceptions, hit the wealthiest 4.5 percent of Floridians and was also the only progressive tax the state had. By getting rid of it, the state became that much more reliant on the sales tax, the fluctuations of which are readily evident in every economic downturn.

Consider where the state would be if it had the $1 billion that tax on stocks and bonds would have produced today. It would not have covered the whole shortfall, true, but because much of that bottom-line total is federal matching money that will not be received because the state is cutting back on its share, it would have covered considerably more than $1 billion.

Or imagine if the rich-people's break had been given year-to-year, depending on the state of the budget — like, for instance, the way the little people's "sales tax holidays" are granted or not granted. Then, Florida's richest would have to forgo their several-thousand-dollar tax breaks in tough years — just as ordinary Floridians have had to do without their six-cents-on-the-dollar break on back-to-school clothes some summers.

Of course, that idea was never on the table. The intangibles tax was deemed "insidious" and had to be eliminated, entirely and forever, while the sales tax holidays — which typically cost about $40 million — were considered gifts to the people, but only when the state could afford them.

Between the intangibles tax repeal and the various other permanent tax cuts — most of them targeted for specific groups and totaling less than $50 million a year — Bush and Republican lawmakers cut recurring revenues by some $1.8 billion a year. The predictable consequence is where Florida is today — on the verge of hacking away at what was already a flimsy safety net.

This outcome, while predictable, is not inevitable. Gov. Charlie Crist wants to spend some of the $7.8 billion in reserves Bush said he was leaving behind (the figure was illusory, and included such things as Florida's obligations in the Everglades restoration), while House Democrats want to close a $400 million loophole that allows giant, multistate corporations an enormous tax advantage against Florida-only businesses.

Neither of these ideas, though, is likely to happen, because both are based on the premise that such massive cuts to education and social services are bad things to be avoided. Unfortunately for parents of public school children, for the poor and for the abused, the architects of the tax policy that got us here do not accept that premise. In their view, they are on the brink of a long-sought victory. They are not likely to give it up easily.

by S.V. Date, published at on April 21, 2008

Friday, April 11, 2008

Save money, cut crime; treat the mentally ill

It's stupid to recycle mentally ill people through Florida's criminal justice system when, for millions less, they could receive effective treatment that cuts the crime rate.

Florida spends about $250 million per year on 1,700 "forensic treatment beds" to basically warehouse people who are mentally incompetent to stand trial. The cost will keep going up. Department of Children and Families Secretary Bob Butterworth, whose department is required to deal with this problem, says, "Of all the money I've ever asked for in my political life, this is the most useless I've ever had to ask for." Mr. Butterworth has spent 35 years in public life.

It's "useless" because the patients generally are held until minimal treatment makes them technically "competent," at which point they usually reach a deal. After that, they are sentenced to time served, go back out on the streets with no more treatment and almost immediately get back in trouble with the law. Now Mr. Butterworth, a former sheriff, legislator, judge and state attorney general, has endorsed a program that he thinks will require him to ask for much less "useless" money. This week, the Florida House agreed with him.

The plan largely is the work of Miami-Dade County Judge Steven Leifman, who serves as a special adviser on criminal justice and mental health to the Florida Supreme Court. The House has agreed to spend $8 million for experimental programs in Escambia, Broward and Miami-Dade counties that will provide continuing treatment and supervision for people who previously would have been "kicked out the door." The initial goal, which may take years, is to convert 300 of the "forensic treatment beds" to the new treatment system, with savings projected at $48 million.

Before society became more enlightened about mental illness, Judge Leifman notes, many mentally ill people ended up in jail. Mental hospitals replaced jails but failed from lack of expertise and money. "Two hundred years have passed," Judge Leifman says, "and the jails once again are the primary place" for holding the mentally ill. Mr. Butterworth's predecessor, under orders from then-Gov. Bush, refused a court order to release mentally ill inmates from the Pinellas County jail.

The number of people declared unfit to stand trial has doubled in five years. Treating them the old way, as Mr. Butterworth and Judge Leifman say, is "literally insane." Now, the Senate needs to join the Florida House in a long-overdue demonstration of sanity.

A Palm Beach Post Editorial published Friday, April 11, 2008

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Number of mentally-ill felons has doubled in Florida according to DCF

The number of accused felons ruled mentally incompetent for trial has doubled over five years, crowding Florida institutions with the most expensive type of offenders at a time of severe budget restraints, according to a new legislative study.

"I think it's absolutely nuts that we spend approximately $250 million a year to maintain approximately 1,707 forensic beds so we can stabilize people to the point that we can teach them what a courtroom is," Department of Children and Families Secretary Bob Butterworth said Monday. "To keep doing that is the definition of insanity."

The House Health Care Council is scheduled today to consider a pilot program in Escambia, Miami-Dade and Broward Counties to get more mentally ill offenders into treatment, rather than prisons. Butterworth, a former attorney general and circuit judge, said his goal is to reduce forensic beds by 300 in six years.

OPPAGA estimated that 2,123 people were found incompetent for trial last fiscal year, compared to 1,061 in 2002-03. The report said 23 percent of inmates in county jails and 16 percent in state prisons "have serious mental illnesses."

"This report underscores the seriousness of the issue, the need to address it thoughtfully and the extreme costs we are facing in the long term if solutions are not found," said Chief Justice R. Fred Lewis, who last year created a multi-agency task force to get the mentally ill out of jails and into treatment.

Miami-Dade County Judge Steven Leifman, who headed that effort, said he will get copies of the report to the House council considering legislation to implement the task force recommendations today. Leifman said there is $8 million in the House budget but no money in the Senate for diverting mentally disturbed offenders to treatment.

"This just highlights everything we've been saying," said Leifman. "It's very, very difficult to get any money but this may be the only new funding to come out of the Legislature, or one of the only new funding issues. But the cost of not addressing this is much too high."

The new analysis said 5.8 out of every 1,000 felony charges resulted in an incompetency finding five years ago but 9.2 per 1,000 did last fiscal year.

"This increase suggests that individuals with mental illness are coming into contact more frequently with the criminal justice system," said the report. "This reflects the de-institutionalization of persons with mental illness. Florida, like most states, has closed psychiatric hospitals in order to treat persons with mental illness in the community, based on the theory that persons with severe mental illness could function in community settings with appropriate social and psychiatric support systems."

Offenders considered a danger to themselves or others can be committed at five institutions — operated by either the Agency for Persons with Disabilities, for those with developmental disorders, orby the Department of Children and Families, for the mentally ill. Last fiscal year, OPPAGA said, courts sent 1,396 defendants to DCF facilities and 118 to APD for "competency restoration" treatment.

Incompetent offenders who are not considered dangerous can be "conditionally released" to community-based care as outpatients. OPPAGA estimated 1,431 mentally ill defendants were sent to community-based "competency restoration" programs, rather than being confined to institutions by DCF, but APD "is unable to provide complete data" on the number of developmentally disabled offenders getting outpatient care.

Those who are found to be dangerous but incompetent for trial are kept indefinitely.

"We're getting very close to capacity," said Butterworth. "We're working with sheriffs and public defenders and the courts to move them in and out as fast as we can, to get them competent for trial if possible."

By Bill Cotterell

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Rigid penalties, high costs, but are we safer?

Florida lawmakers stumbled into a sticky trap when they legislated tougher prison sentences in the late 1980s. Their initial attempts to keep the "worst of the worst" behind bars for longer periods of time were modest and sensible. But every headline-grabbing crime story spurred them to cast a wider and more punitive net, with little regard to the cost, human or otherwise.

As a result, some dangerous people will almost surely never see the light of day. But thousands of inmates will spend far longer in prison than their crimes merit -- and their families and communities will suffer for it. Many people incarcerated in state prisons never commit another crime after being released, but the longer prisoners are behind bars the less chance they have of reclaiming productive lives.

Meanwhile, the public must bear the increasing cost of maintaining these expensive failure factories, with little assurance of greater public safety. Private prisons -- once touted as the answer to expensive corrections budgets -- haven't worked, sacrificing accountability while saving little.

By the end of the year, Florida's prison population could top 100,000. The cost of keeping those prisoners behind bars runs close to $20,000 per inmate, per year, and the total correctional budget is more than $2.5 billion. Despite a prison-building spree in the 1990s, Florida's state correctional institutions are near capacity, and the state will need an estimated two new prisons a year to keep up.

When state coffers are full, prison budgets get little scrutiny. But lawmakers are staring down a $2 billion hole in next year's budget. And some of them are coming to the realization that Florida's lock 'em up philosophy has gone too far, that it's time to rethink some of the overbearing sentencing laws that cost the state so much. The alternative -- slashing drug treatment and education for inmates and reducing programs that help people turn away from crime -- is all but guaranteed to boomerang on the state, producing an even greater number of people locked hopelessly behind bars and an even tougher strain on taxpayers.

Give state Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, credit for seeing the light. He's recommending early release for selected non-violent offenders, including people behind bars for driving with suspended licenses, specific drug offenses or nonpayment of child support. More important, he's recommending a comprehensive look at Florida's get-tough sentencing laws -- through a new commission -- that would examine the cost and benefit of each sentencing provision. The commission would consider tweaks to state sentencing guidelines, returning discretion to judges and prosecutors currently bound by state law to mete harsh sentences even when they're not warranted.

That's the crucial thing to understand about Florida's sentencing laws -- judges and prosecutors always have had the option to levy harsher sentences against truly dangerous people. Minimum-mandatory sentencing laws and strict guidelines strip skilled jurists of the ability to make that determination.

"Lock 'em all up and let God sort them out" may sound good on a campaign flier. In practice, it's been disastrous for Florida and an enormous strain on state resources. If the current budget crisis forces lawmakers to finally accept that reality, Florida could end up the better for it.

Florida's Prison System By the Numbers

70,616 inmates in Florida prisons in March 2000

96,186 inmates in Florida prisons in February 2008

1.4 Years average length of prison term served by offenders sentenced in 1988 (includes all offenses)

4 Years average length of prison term served by offenders sentenced in 2004 (includes all offenses)

34.9% average percentage of court-ordered sentence served by an inmate sentenced in 1988

87% average percentage of a court-ordered sentence served by an inmate sentenced in 2004

In 1988, 1.9 percent of the prison population was serving a sentence of more than 10 years, and less than 1 percent was serving a sentence of more than 20 years (including prisoners on death row).

In 2004, 7.4 percent of the prison population was serving a sentence longer than 10 years, and 3.2 percent was serving sentences of longer than 20 years.

SOURCE: Florida Dept. of Corrections

Originally appeared on News-Journal Online at
April 06, 2008

© 2008 News-Journal Corporation. ®

Friday, March 28, 2008

Stay tough on crime -- by preventing it

In a year of the steepest budget cuts in Florida history, some state-funded operations will actually get more tax dollars. These would be private-prison operators and prison-construction companies. The Legislature is poised to spend millions of dollars to build two prisons a year for the next five years. The state prison system is near capacity with nearly 100,000 inmates.
Building more prisons and passing laws that are harder on repeat offenders are often cited by lawmakers to prove their tough-on-crime bona fides. But there is a more cost-effective way to prove you're tough on crime -- prevent it from happening in the first place. Deterrence programs, when applied correctly, work. Yet, incredibly, the state's most effective crime-prevention tool is facing the budget ax. The Florida Department of Juvenile Justice proposes cutting all funding for the state's Juvenile Assessment Centers, created by the Legislature in the wake of a lethal crime spike in the 1990s. The JACs are run by counties.

Can the JACs reduce demand for prison beds? Yes. Take the one run by Miami-Dade County's Juvenile Services Department. In 1995 there were 20,000 juvenile arrests in Miami-Dade. The county's JAC opened in 1997. By 2006, juvenile arrests in Miami-Dade had dropped to 10,860. The county's Juvenile Detention Center used to average 350 teen occupants a day, now the average is 100 a day. Juvenile offenders' recidivism rate has been reduced by 78 percent since the JAC opened here. Other JACs have been equally effective in turning young men and women away from the criminal path and imprisonment.

Paying for prison construction and for housing and feeding inmates costs a mint compared to what the Department of Juvenile Justice spends on deterrence, which begins when a police officer brings a youth arrested for the first time to a JAC. There, the teen is evaluated, which is crucial. It can bring down the heavy fist of the juvenile-justice system when that is warranted or, instead, begin to resolve issues that cause the youth's wayward behavior.

Gov. Crist's Juvenile Justice Blueprint Committee, headed by Florida Atlantic University President Frank Brogan, released its assessment of the state's juvenile-justice system in February. Among the findings is that the state must change its ''lock-em-up'' approach to one that uses treatment and residential programs to steer youths away from trouble. As difficult as the budgeting is in this cash-strapped year, the Legislature should show that it can be tough on crime by being efficient and smart. This means funding JACs and youth crime-prevention initiatives adequately. The choice should be easy. Fund the JACs or continue to spend far more dollars building state prisons.

A Miami Herald Editorial published March 29, 2008

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Lawmakers are misguided on correctional-system cuts

The Florida Legislature would rather look tough on crime than actually be tough.

That's the irrefutable message that shows up in both House and Senate budget proposals, which dramatically undermine the Department of Corrections and along with it public defenders, sheriffs and local corrections systems.

By contrast, the budget of Gov. Charlie Crist, a former attorney general and lawmaker known at onetime as "Chain Gang Charlie," is supportive of the DOC's current allocation of its budget to a mix of substance abuse rehabilitation and education programs and old-fashioned incarceration. He finds revenues in rainy-day funds that can be tapped for essential and wise approaches to public safety.

For example, substance abuse treatment — such as that conducted here in Leon County at the 70-bed residential treatment program on Springhill Road for adults and at Disc Village for juveniles, in our Teen Court and myriad programs statewide — is well documented as a means of reducing recidivism. In turn public safety is enhanced when crimes related to substance abuse are diminished.

Yet the House on Wednesday cut the DOC's entire $31 million for substance abuse programs inside prisons and in community partnerships. It also, absurdly, eliminates state money to operate federally mandated programs.

This is an interesting rebellion against a federal mandate, given that the House's budget would cut 607 community corrections officers and 132 employees in local community corrections administrations. These costs would — what else? — be handed down as another unfunded mandate to local governments.

When the DOC was asked to cut $214.7 million — or 10 percent — from its total budget, it was locked into 93 percent of the budget necessary for housing and feeding inmates. What was left is the treatment and education and staffing of local corrections programs — things apparently deemed nonessential by House members.

The Senate budget isn't much more reassuring. Senators are agreeing with Mr. Crist in holding harmless the substance abuse education and treatment efforts that have been strongly endorsed by not only DOC Secretary Walt McNeil but also Children and Families Secretary Bob Butterworth and former drug czar and DOC head Jim McDonough.

Yet the Senate is recommending cutting 1,390 prison guards, 682 community corrections officers and 128 administrators statewide, positions local governments will have to take up in part or do without. This loss of jobs is bad for the work force of prison communities, but also puts at risk the corrections officers remaining on the job, but not in inadequate numbers.

Leon County Public Defender Nancy Daniels is especially dismayed by the possible loss of the Teen Court, which has been a shining star in getting kids out of harm's way when it comes to illegal substances. "For every $1 in treatment of substance abuse we save $10," Ms. Daniels said, speaking of crime and its associated costs and losses.

Given that 20 percent of inmates in state prisons are there for drug-related crimes and up to two-thirds committed crimes to support their drug habit or while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, it is folly to not invest in substance abuse treatment for inmates and people on probation and, especially, young people.

Lawmakers, your addiction to reckless cost-cutting of even the most sensible cost-saving programs is taking our state down a path of no return.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Cutting Drug-Treatment Programs Will Prove Costly To Taxpayers

Florida's budget crisis may destroy drug treatment in Florida. But if lawmakers respond thoughtfully, the crisis could end up making the state's drug-treatment efforts and criminal justice system more effective.

Across-the board cuts to treatment's already inadequate funding would render it all-but-irrelevant.

But if lawmakers look closely at the numbers they will see that bolstering the state's investment in drug treatment would actually cut costs.

The reason? It is more effective and less expensive than building new prisons.

On Wednesday, the Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Walter McNeil went before the Senate's criminal justice appropriations committee to respond to a directive from its chairman, Sen. Victor Crist, to show how it could cut 10 percent of its $3.2 billion budget. On the list: the complete elimination of $36.8 million for drug treatment programs both inside prisons and in partnerships with community-based, non-profit treatment groups that work with probationers and those in drug court.

The cuts, if realized, would be devastating both in terms of public safety and human costs. The short-term savings quickly would be consumed by the costs of housing additional prisoners and rising crime rates and the resulting social costs.

Florida is quickly running out of room in its prison system. It now houses 99,000 inmates but must grow to 105,000 beds by the middle of 2009. This year alone Florida is looking at spending about $650 million on new prison construction.

Bear in mind that 20 percent of those incarcerated in state prisons are there for drug offenses, but as many as two-thirds of the inmate population committed crimes either to feed a drug habit or while under the influence of their addiction.

Drug treatment substantially reduces crime. Nearly one-third of inmates who don't get drug treatment are sent back to prison, compared to just 11 percent of those who do get help.

The Florida Alcohol and Drug Abuse Association estimates that providing substance abuse treatment to inmates and probationers will end up saving the state $278 million this year alone; and $771 million over the next five years.

Gov. Charlie Crist included a wise investment in drug treatment in his budget, nearly doubling the state's commitment to treatment with an additional $28 million. This tough-on-crime governor understands that preventing crimes is the best way to protect the public.

And we were heartened to see Sen. Crist make it clear in a recent interview with the Miami Herald that he stands in support of drug treatment initiatives.

The Florida Legislature has an opportunity this session to cut costs and improve public safety - if it will invest in drug-treatment programs.

An Editorial from The Tampa Tribune
Published: March 20, 2008
Find this article at:

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Florida Department of Corrections asks Legislature to Abolish all Substance Abuse Programs

The Legislature has requested that the Department of Corrections propose an additional cut of $213 million (10% reduction) from its budget without eliminating any prison beds. The Department of Corrections is poised to recommend tomorrow the elimination of all $37 million in existing correctional substance abuse programs to meet this goal. In addition, Secretary McNeil will also be recommending the elimination of community-based faith initiatives, pre-trial intervention programs, and drug court funding. A 10% cut in agency administration and the loss of over 300 security staff and 350 probation staff are also on the potential cut list. Because institutions cannot be closed, the remaining option is for the Department of Corrections to decimate probation and eliminate services.

Elimination of these services will only be prevented if each and every correctional substance abuse provider takes action today. The following action steps are recommended:
• Come to Tallahassee tomorrow and Thursday to attend the appropriations hearings and meet with legislators. Plan to return next week for the appropriations meetings. The budget will be complete by next Friday, March 28. There is very little time for your voice to be heard. (Schedule of Appropriations Meetings at end of Alert).
• Prepare a one page description of the impact of such cuts on your community, local public safety efforts, and your program. Report the number of staff that will be terminated and the fiscal impact on the community. Use local data and the data we have supplied to calculate the additional cost of new prison beds as a result of the elimination of your services
• Call the media today. Alert them to this possibility. Ask them to cover the story in Tallahassee tomorrow and to write a local impact statement as soon as possible. If you do not know the reporters, ask for the reporter that covers crime stories. Have prepared for them a success story, how your program benefited an offender and how this person is now a tax paying citizen.
• Call judges, sheriffs, state attorneys, and other influential community members. Ask them to make a call today to key legislators to argue for no cuts to substance abuse programs

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Prison policies in need of an overhaul

Gov. Charlie Crist should know better. He has been involved in Florida politics long enough to know that the Legislature's 20-year binge of anti-crime laws and new prison construction is wasteful and counterproductive. Yet the governor last week vowed to stay the course with crime-and-punishment policies that are costly and inefficient.
Smart planning

Some lawmakers suggested that Florida could save significant amounts of money in these lean budget times by adjusting its incarceration policies. They are right as rain. Florida incarcerates more people than all but two states, California and Texas. Thus, Florida's jail population ranks third in a country that jails more people than any other in the world, including China, which has four times as many people as the United States and is run by a communist dictatorship.

Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, and others who want to reduce costs by winnowing Florida's jail populations have more than a good idea: They have a formula for smart planning and savvy politics. Sen. Crist (no relation to the governor) and other lawmakers want to reduce the state's prison population by releasing nonviolent inmates early, putting others in supervised work release and creating a commission to review minimum-mandatory sentencing, including jail time for nonviolent drug offenders.

In truth, a commission isn't needed to ''discover'' what every Floridian already knows. But if a commission can give lawmakers political cover by building a data base that supports common-sense policies, then fine, impanel a commission. Florida began building jails at a breakneck pace in the 1980s after judges ordered thousands of inmates freed due to prison overcrowding. The Legislature responded by enacting laws that have resulted in thousands of nonviolent offenders being jailed.

Waste of resources

Today, Florida's jails are less crowded, but the costs have soared. Florida spends more than $2.5 billion annually to house nearly 100,000 inmates, a majority of whom are incarcerated for nonviolent offenses. In addition to the direct costs to the state of jailing so many people, Florida's high-incarceration rate breaks up families, damages communities and returns individuals to the streets with criminal records and poorly equipped to make positive contributions to society.

Gov. Crist knows better than to continue with policies that perpetuate this waste of resources and human capital. He knows because he has seen it all happen during his tenure in public office. Gov. Crist must act, but he alone can't reverse Florida's reliance on counterproductive prison policies. His leadership, however, can embolden others to find better alternatives for the failed policies.

A Miami Herald Editorial
Posted on Tue, Mar. 18, 2008

Friday, March 07, 2008

Keep mentally ill in proper treatment, not cells

Annually, as many as 125,000 people with mental illnesses requiring
immediate treatment are arrested and booked into Florida jails. On
any given day, more than 70,000 individuals with serious mental
illnesses reside in Florida's jails and prisons or are under
correctional supervision in the community. Frequently, these
individuals enter the justice system as the result of committing
relatively minor offenses that are directly related to symptoms of
acute, untreated mental illnesses.

Unfortunately, many of them are either denied community-based care,
or the care that they do receive is fragmented and insufficient.
Disabled and vulnerable, they recycle through the system, creating a
revolving door of criminal and legal involvement.

Measures have been taken in the past to reform this unsystematic
approach to Florida's mental health system, but to no avail:

• The movement from institutional to community-based treatment was
never fully executed or funded, resulting in decades of fragmented
mental healthcare.

• The existing community mental health system leaves enormous gaps in
treatment and access and is not designed to serve the needs of
individuals who experience the most chronic and severe forms of
mental illnesses.

Some of us have served on trial courts across the state and have
witnessed firsthand the problems that are created when courts are
forced to deal with mental health issues. Without proper treatment,
these individuals appear and reappear in court. But all of us know
that the problems with the current system weigh heavily on law
enforcement and the criminal justice system. Courts see increasingly
high numbers of cases and jails are continually overcrowded.

Based on recent trends, Florida can expect the number of prison
inmates with mental illnesses to nearly double in the next nine years
to over 32,000 individuals, with an average annual increase of
roughly 1,700 individuals per year. To keep up with such demand, the
state would need to open at least one new prison every year.

The state of Florida currently spends roughly $250 million annually
to treat about 1,700 individuals under forensic commitment. Without a
change to the existing system, the state faces potential forensic
expenditures of $500 million annually by 2015.

But there is hope. A comprehensive plan was recently unveiled under
the joint leadership of the three government branches and with
sponsorship from Chief Justice R. Fred Lewis and Gov. Charlie Crist.
Under this redesigned system of care, there will be:

• Programs incorporating best-practices to support adaptive
functioning in the community and prevent individuals with mental
illnesses from inappropriately entering the justice and forensic
mental health systems.

• Mechanisms to quickly identify and appropriately respond to
individuals with mental illnesses who become involved in the justice

• Programs to stabilize these individuals and link them to recovery-
oriented services that respond to their unique needs.

• Financing strategies that redirect cost savings from the forensic
mental health system and establish new Medicaid funding programs.

We strongly urge the Florida Legislature to adopt and implement the
recommendations made for the transformation of the public mental
health system. In doing so, lawmakers will achieve the dual purposes
of addressing needed change and improvements in efficiency of the
mental health system, as well as reducing a costly and unnecessary
burden on all facets of the justice system.

This article was written by six former Florida Supreme Court
justices: Chief Justice Stephen H. Grimes, Chief Justice Major B.
Harding, Justice Joseph W. Hatchett, Chief Justice Leander J. Shaw,
Jr., Chief Justice Ben F. Overton and Chief Justice Parker Lee
McDonald. All are retired. Posted 3/7/08

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Children in Chains

As they consider ways to make juvenile offenders safer in state custody, lawmakers should seize the opportunity to clarify state policy on one controversial practice -- slapping leg irons and belly chains on youthful offenders, regardless of their age, physical strength or offense.

Lawmakers never officially approved the practice of shackling juveniles travelling to and from court. Yet it's common procedure in courthouses across the state -- even in circuits where adults accused of violent offenses are transported without the chains. Experts in juvenile justice lament the message the heavy shackles send to young offenders, many of whom are already terrified.

In September, the Florida Bar's Committee on the Legal Status of Children recommended that lawmakers make it clear that shackles are only to be used when a juvenile represents a clear physical threat, either to himself, guards or fellow offenders. A commission appointed by Gov. Charlie Crist reached the same conclusion last month, after hearing from psychologists who said the shackles serve to disorient and traumatize youth, making them distrustful and sending the message that they are little more than animals. Several circuits, including Miami-Dade, have dropped the practice; Public Defender Jim Purdy, whose circuit includes Volusia and Flagler, has asked local judges to make the same call.

The extensive testimony makes it clear: A one-size-fits-all policy on chaining children is unnecessarily cruel and could be counter-productive. The Legislature should put a stop to it.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Locked into a prison mentality

The Land of Liberty now imprisons one of every 99 adults, a criminal milestone that deserves more than a punch line about law and order.

Forget, for a moment, the causes or the results of putting 2.3-million adults behind bars in the United States. Just consider the sobering context: The United States leads the planet in incarceration, in raw numbers and per capita rate. No other country is even close.

China, with more than four times the population, imprisons a third fewer. Russia, at one of every 159 adults, has the second highest rate behind the United States. Cuba locks up one in 204, South Africa one in 293, Iran one in 450. The U.S. incarceration rate is now seven times higher than Canada, 10 times more than Italy and 12 times greater than Japan.

These numbers are supplied by the Pew Center on the States, and one striking feature of its report is the extent to which conservative state lawmakers are now looking for alternatives. No one is trying to push dangerous inmates back on the streets, but some states are looking anew at how they deal with drug offenders and probation violators and older inmates under mandatory sentences.

Dave Heineman, Republican governor of Nebraska, introduced a work program for nonviolent offenders last year, saying: "The concept we've embraced through community corrections is that there are better solutions to this challenge than to simply build another maximum-security prison."

Florida might want to listen. While other big states find ways to reduce prison population and crime at the same time, Florida continues to stuff its prisons. Just last year, Gov. Charlie Crist pushed through a law that can lock up even those who have minor probation violations.

According to Pew, Florida is second in the nation in the share of general government revenue it spends on corrections. That financial measurement is salient, since that same pot of money is used to pay for public schools and universities. Across the United States, prison spending over the past two decades has grown at five times the rate of education spending.

The questions posed by these prison numbers are profound, which is why the usual political bromides are inadequate.

A St. Petersburg Times Editorial
Published March 1, 2008

Thursday, February 28, 2008

1 In Every 99 Americans Now Behind Bars

U.S. Spent More Than $49 Billion On Corrections In 2007

Don't ask the U.S. prison system if this is indeed "the land of the free."

For the first time in history, more than one in every 100 American adults is in jail or prison, according to a new report tracking the surge in inmate population.

The report, released Thursday by the Pew Center on the States, said the 50 states spent more than $49 billion on corrections last year, up from less than $11 billion 20 years earlier. The rate of increase for prison costs was six times greater than for higher education spending, the report said.

Using updated state-by-state data, the report said 2,319,258 adults were held in U.S. prisons or jails at the start of 2008 -- one out of every 99.1 adults, and more than any other country in the world.

By contrast, in mid 2002 the ratio was 1 in 142, with the prison population surpassing 2 million for the first time.

The steadily growing inmate population "is saddling cash-strapped states with soaring costs they can ill afford and failing to have a clear impact either on recidivism or overall crime," said the report.

Susan Urahn, managing director of the Pew Center on the States, said budget woes are prompting officials in many states to consider new, cost-saving corrections policies that might have been shunned in the recent past for fear of appearing soft in crime.

"We're seeing more and more states being creative because of tight budgets," she said in an interview. "They want to be tough on crime, they want to be a law-and-order state -- but they also want to save money, and they want to be effective."

The report cited Kansas and Texas as states which have acted decisively to slow the growth of their inmate population. Their actions include greater use of community supervision for low-risk offenders and employing sanctions other than reimprisonment for ex-offenders who commit technical violations of parole and probation rules.

"The new approach, born of bipartisan leadership, is allowing the two states to ensure they have enough prison beds for violent offenders while helping less dangerous lawbreakers become productive, taxpaying citizens," the report said.

While many state governments have shown bipartisan interest in curbing prison growth, there also are persistent calls to proceed cautiously.

"We need to be smarter," said David Muhlhausen, a criminal justice expert with the conservative Heritage Foundation. "We're not incarcerating all the people who commit serious crimes -- but we're also probably incarcerating people who don't need to be."

According to the report, the inmate population increased last year in 36 states and the federal prison system.

The largest percentage increase -- 12 percent -- was in Kentucky, where Gov. Steve Beshear highlighted the cost of corrections in his budget speech last month. He noted that the state's crime rate had increased only about 3 percent in the past 30 years, while the state's inmate population has increased by 600 percent.

The Pew report was compiled by the Center on the State's Public Safety Performance Project, which is working directly with 13 states on developing programs to divert offenders from prison without jeopardizing public safety.

"For all the money spent on corrections today, there hasn't been a clear and convincing return for public safety," said the project's director, Adam Gelb. "More and more states are beginning to rethink their reliance on prisons for lower-level offenders and finding strategies that are tough on crime without being so tough on taxpayers."

The report said prison growth and higher incarceration rates do not reflect a parallel increase in crime or in the nation's overall population. Instead, it said, more people are behind bars mainly because of tough sentencing measures, such as "three-strikes" laws, that result in longer prison stays.

"For some groups, the incarceration numbers are especially startling," the report said. "While one in 30 men between the ages of 20 and 34 is behind bars, for black males in that age group the figure is one in nine."

The nationwide figures, as of Jan. 1, include 1,596,127 people in state and federal prisons and 723,131 in local jails -- a total 2,319,258 out of almost 230 million American adults.

The report said the United States is the world's incarceration leader, far ahead of more populous China with 1.5 million people behind bars. It said the U.S. also is the leader in inmates per capita (750 per 100,000 people), ahead of Russia (628 per 100,000) and other former Soviet bloc nations which make up the rest of the Top 10.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

State Can't Scrimp on Public Defenders

The state's public defender offices are one of the best bargains in state government. It costs Florida taxpayers less than $200 per case to have indigent criminal defendants represented, and the quality of that representation is generally rated as quite good. Just try and hire a criminal defense attorney for that amount.
Unfortunately, the Florida Public Defender Association says the 20 elected public defender offices around the state are facing critical budget shortfalls due to cuts already made by the Legislature and further cuts that may be coming.
In the Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender's Office, for example, $328,000 was cut from the 2007-2008 fiscal year budget during the October special session. On top of that, 1 percent of its appropriated funds have been held back every quarter. (The governor, House speaker and Senate president implemented this hold-back for state operations as a way to prepare for further revenue shortfalls.)
Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger says that all told, his office is looking at about $1 million hit out of a $16 million budget, if those held-back funds are not returned. And that means laying off employees or furloughing people for long periods.
"Ninety-four percent of the state-budgeted money goes for salaries and benefits," Dillinger says. If more cuts occur to this year's budget, as are expected during the coming Legislative session, he might have to stop staffing certain offices. Dillinger has already laid that out as a contingency plan.
There are some expenses in state government that can be put off, and there are there are essential functions that have to continue. Providing defendants an attorney is a constitutional duty. The state risks crippling prosecutions if the public defender offices don't have the manpower to represent those accused.
Already, public defender caseloads around the state have reached well beyond that recommended by professional legal associations. Just look at what has gone on over time. In 1975, public defenders handled 134 cases for each funded position. Now that number stands at 306. When attorneys are asked to do too much, they breach their ethical duty to provide effective counsel and at some point have to stop accepting more cases.
The governor should release the money that has been held back from the public defender budgets, and the leadership in Tallahassee should exempt these offices from further budget cuts. When times are tough it makes sense to set priorities and fund the necessities rather than resort to simplistic across-the-board cuts. Paying the full freight for our public defender system is one of those necessities.

A St. Petersburg Times Editorial
Published January 21, 2008

Saturday, January 12, 2008

True and Untrue Confessions

What did Martin Tankleff look and sound like when he confessed in 1988 to bludgeoning and slashing his parents to death? Did he seem like a killer or a confused 17-year-old being pressured into admitting something that he did not do? We’ll never know. There is no video or audio recording, just an incomplete narrative, handwritten by detectives, which Mr. Tankleff signed, quickly repudiated, and spent nearly two decades trying to undo.

Mr. Tankleff, now 36, was released from prison this month after a New York State appeals court overturned his murder conviction, ruling that new evidence would likely have led the jury to find him not guilty. The district attorney, Thomas Spota, then announced that he would not pursue the case. After spending half his life behind bars, Mr. Tankleff is free, and his parents’ killer or killers presumably remain at large.

His confession came after hours of interrogation during which detectives lied to Mr. Tankleff, telling him that his mortally wounded father had identified his son as the attacker. “Could I have blacked out?” he asked. “Could I be possessed?” Largely on the basis of his own words, he was tried and convicted.

The Innocence Project, the watchdog group that helped to defend Mr. Tankleff, has long argued that false confessions are far more frequent than is commonly believed. The group claims that in more than a quarter of cases in which defendants were later exonerated by DNA evidence, they had made incriminating statements, given confessions or pleaded guilty. Suspects do this for many reasons — because they are coerced, threatened, frightened, drunk or high, mentally impaired or ignorant of the law. Some do it because they have been lied to.

The Innocence Project, many other civil liberties groups and growing numbers of police departments and prosecutors’ offices, argue that interrogations in major criminal cases should be recorded. The practice, they say, would deter false convictions by discouraging misconduct and manipulation by the police. It would give judges and jurors a tool to assess a confession’s authenticity. It would protect the police from false claims of abuse, create a clear record of suspects’ statements and it would bolster public confidence in the legal system.

Illinois, Alaska and Minnesota are among more than 500 jurisdictions that routinely record police interrogations. A bill that would require videotaping of questioning in felony cases passed the New York State Assembly last year but stalled in the Senate. The Legislature should promptly revive and pass the bill, and Gov. Eliot Spitzer should sign it into law.

The Tankleff case and the recent high-profile exoneration of Jeffrey Deskovic, who spent 16 years in prison for a rape and murder he confessed to but did not commit, both argue strongly for fixing this glaring flaw in New York’s justice system.

A News York Times Editorial publlshed January 12, 2008

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Florida Criminal Justice Explained in English and Spanish

The Sarasota County Bar Association announces the release of a new video entitled, “The Florida Criminal Justice System” or “El Sistema Juridico Criminal en la Florida.” The video gives a brief description of law enforcement, arrest, the first court appearance, attorneys, case investigation and jury trials. It is intended to educate English and Spanish speaking persons about what to expect if a loved one is arrested.
The video had its genesis in the television program “Law and Sarasota,” jointly produced by the Education Channel and the Sarasota County Bar Association. This half hour program focuses on area judges and attorneys, and was intended to educate the local population about the workings of the legal system. In 2006, the program won the public service award from the National Association of Bar Executives.
Host of the program, Adam Tebrugge, and Executive Director of the Bar Association, Jan Jung, then pursued a grant from the Florida Bar Foundation to present a Spanish version of the program. This was prompted, in part, by the growth of the local Hispanic population. In 2005, court interpreters assisted over 7,300 Hispanic clients in the Sarasota legal system. Recognizing the need, the Florida Bar Foundation awarded a $4,000 grant for the proposed program.
Tebrugge worked with Spanish speaking attorney Varinia Van Ness, and producer Bob Gray, to develop the new video. “I want to make sure that everyone who comes to Court on a criminal matter understands what is going on” said Tebrugge. “Varinia was a great assistance to the project,” Tebrugge added. “She provides services to many Hispanic clients and knew what information we needed to convey.” Attorney Van Ness is also hosting the Spanish language version of the program at her web-site,
The DVD of the program will be available for free distribution to schools, libraries and local employers, by contacting the Sarasota County Bar Association at 941-366-6703. The Sarasota County Bar Association is proud to sponsor this video, which is in line with its goals of advancing professionalism, encouraging public service, and providing legal resources and services to all in the community.