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Melba Pearson, Shalini Goel Agarwal: Keep Florida from falling further behind; adopt meaningful criminal justice reform

Florida is falling behind on criminal justice reform.

While a majority of states – including Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas – have adopted comprehensive criminal justice reforms over the last several years with bipartisan support, Florida has done little to evaluate its existing policies and create a more effective system. Other states are reducing incarceration levels while simultaneously lowering crime rates and saving millions of dollars.

Meanwhile, Florida spends more than $2.3 billion a year to incarcerate nearly 100,000 people in prison. From 1970 to 2014, our population has roughly tripled; but the number of people in prison increased by more than 1,000 percent. Between 1990 and 2009, the length of sentences increased by 166 percent – more than any other state.

It’s clear that Florida is sending too many people to prison for too long, and in doing so, wasting our tax dollars. It’s time that our legislators do something to stop as well as reverse Florida’s ineffective reliance on mass incarceration.

Florida’s failure to overhaul its system has nothing to do with lack of opportunity or popular support. Year after year, our lawmakers fail to move forward proposals that would undoubtedly improve the criminal justice system. They cannot shift their complacency onto the backs of constituents, claiming voters want “tough-on-crime” politicians. Floridians are ready for change. A poll recently released by Right on Crime – a conservative advocacy group – found that registered Florida voters, including Republicans, back criminal justice reforms that are being proposed in the 2018 legislative session.

For starters, lawmakers should allow judges to depart from mandatory minimum sentences when they find that level of punishment is not justified. Right now, judges’ hands are tied by laws meant to target drug kingpins. Instead, people facing nonviolent, and often first-time, drug offenses are now captured in a system with long sentences and no rehabilitation. Imprisonment is not appropriate for people who suffer from addiction or mental health issues. Treatment is the more effective path in the short and long-term, and the less expensive option. Two-thirds of Florida voters believe judges should have the discretion to depart from these sentences when appropriate. Legislators should support two bills in this legislative session, SB 694 and HB 481, as these bills will allow a judge the discretion to impose an appropriate sentence that fits the crime.

Further, we should also raise the monetary value threshold at which theft becomes a felony. The amount hasn’t been updated – even for inflation – since 1986. At $300, we have one of the lowest thresholds in the country; in Georgia, it’s $1,500 and in Texas, it’s $2,500. This outdated law burdens people charged with theft of items like bicycles, an article of clothing, or small electronics with lifelong consequences that don’t fit the crime. Each conviction could end up costing Florida taxpayers up to $100,000 – the average amount it costs to house someone in a state prison for five years. SB 928 and HB 713 would raise the monetary threshold to $1,500, which a majority of Floridians support. While that amount is still lower than some other southern states, passing this legislation would be a much-needed step in the right direction.

Lastly, we should encourage pre-arrest diversion programs that keep people from cycling into the criminal justice system in the first place and save money. A majority of arrests in Florida are for misdemeanor offenses. We shouldn’t be sending so many people to jail for low-level crimes and burdening taxpayers with the cost of housing, meals, health care and supervision. Nearly three in four Florida voters believe counties should be encouraged to create civil citation programs that would provide law enforcement officers an alternative to arrest.

Fortunately, several leading legislators have proposed these reforms and are taking to heart that Floridians say the primary purpose of the criminal justice system should be to rehabilitate, not punish. Now is the time for the entire legislature to support their effort. It is time for our leaders to adopt smart policies that will prevent crime and reduce recidivism, while saving taxpayer dollars and keeping us safe.

No more excuses. It is time we had better justice in Florida.


Shalini Goel Agarwal is managing attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center. Melba Pearson is deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and immediate past president of The National Black Prosecutors Association.

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