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Ron DeSantis public safety panel: Tough on crime, big on lockdown

Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis‘ transition-based public safety panel convened Thursday to move forward on one of the candidate’s winning issues.

Support from police unions and sheriffs proved pivotal in DeSantis’ win over Democrat Andrew Gillum last month, with a constant drumbeat insisting that Gillum was soft on crime.

The committee is heavy on professional law enforcement officers, along with many of those on the right who were affected by the Parkland tragedy, ensuring a blend of advocacy for the status quo and passion for more aggressive state solutions.

Chair Kent Stermon urged a “10,000 feet view” in the committee, as opposed to policy debate or specifics, noting that the committee didn’t have set goals going in.

Florida Department of Law Enforcement head Rick Swearingen spotlighted Florida’s “47-year low” in crime while urging panelists to avoid complacency.

Part of avoiding complacency, apparently, is doubling down on warehousing people in Florida’s broken prison system, a sentiment of numerous panelists Thursday.

Criminal justice reform? Not from this panel.

Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said, regarding the “low crime rate” that “the system isn’t broken,” Judd said. People who think otherwise “have no engagement” with the “horror” posed by crime in Florida in the past.

Sheriff Wayne Ivey of Brevard County noted that “we’ve been able to keep people locked up” instead of going “soft on crime.”

“Florida’s a safe place to come and raise a family,” Ivey said. “We have to stay the course and extend that out a little bit and look at juvenile crime.”

Kids are criminals too, Ivey said, and when they commit infractions they need to be treated harshly.

Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe recalled the “salad days,” when people served a small fraction of their sentences. And that memory reinforces the need for the status quo.

“All this talk of reform, there’s never any mention of the victim,” McCabe said.

Panelists, however, avoided inconvenient counterfactuals: The spiraling health care costs of elderly inmates; rampant issues with Hepatitis C and other infectious diseases among the younger set in the system; capital costs of facilities built four decades ago.

The Department of Corrections, it seems, will have to find ways to do more. There was no advocacy of raising that department’s budget on the panel, a seemingly necessary pre-condition to continuing along the current mission.

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez lauded the “correlation between the crime rate” and the fact that “criminals happen to be in jail.”

“The longer they stay in jail, the less crimes” they commit, Gimenez noted, advocating “cameras” and “facial-recognition software” in neighborhoods.

Conversation moved on to drug trafficking, which Swearingen spotlighted as a public safety concern.

“With drug trafficking, comes violence,” Swearingen said. “Our success in one drug category often means abuse and death in another category.”

Parkland survivor Hunter Pollack noted that kids are dealing marijuana in school, before the larger discussion. Columbia County Sheriff Mark Hunter noted that the DARE Program, a source of ironic T-shirts for turn-of-the-century hipsters, was effective in stemming such transgressions.

Bay County Sheriff Tommy Ford noted that jail is a good place for opioid treatment, a “great opportunity” since “we’re already paying room and board.”

Another speaker noted that “75 percent” of inmates come in on “drugs or alcohol,” before advocating better “border protection” because “Mexican heroin” is big in his county.

“They can’t get the pills, so the heroin is coming in,” he said.

From heroin to terrorism, the conversation moved.

Swearingen noted continued risk for another 9/11-style attack, with 15 terror-related incidents since that date in Florida.

Judd advised “creating tentacles in every law enforcement agency [via FDLE], every social services agency … to see the telltale signs” of homegrown terror.

Another sheriff noted that a potential “deterrent” for a child may be to spend one or three nights in jail, along the lines of the old “Scared Straight” programs.

Andy Pollack, whose daughter was killed at Parkland, agreed. He said diversionary programs “have it backward.”

“Something we need to do for youth,” Pollack said, “is introduce them to the judicial system at an early age.”

Written By

A.G. Gancarski has been a working journalist for over two decades, with bylines in national and local publications alike on subjects ranging from pop music to national and global politics. Gancarski has been a correspondent for FloridaPolitics.com since 2014, and has held a column in Jacksonville, Florida's Folio Weekly for two decades. In 2018, he was a finalist for an Association of Alternative Newsweeklies "best political column." Gancarski is a frequent presence on Jacksonville television and radio, including fill-in slots on WJCT-FM's award-winning talk show "First Coast Connect." He can be reached at a.g.gancarski@gmail.com.

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