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.