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.