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Bob Gualtieri: Criminal justice system is not static — it’s constantly improving

The criminal justice system is not perfect, but to cast aspersions that the entire system is racist is wrong.

It is often said that there is no greater challenge than policing a free society. Those words continue to hold true today as sheriffs work to keep communities safe during a pandemic and civil unrest due to the killing last month of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

The ACLU recently published an article entitled, “Racial disparities in Florida’s criminal justice system are shameful.” The article contained several false statements and painted a bleak picture of our current criminal justice system.

The Florida Sheriffs Association (FSA) felt compelled to respond and set the record straight.

Census data states 17% of Florida citizens are Black, while the Florida Department of Corrections reports that 47% of men and women in state prison are Black. Those numbers cannot be disputed, but the conclusion that Florida’s entire criminal justice infrastructure is racist is too simple an answer.

First, sheriffs agree there is always work to be done in creating a better criminal justice system that is fair to all citizens.

The factors that influence decision-making at every step in the criminal justice process are varied and complex, and scholars have struggled for decades to understand and explain the disparities that exist.

Even today, there is no universal consensus among researchers as to how race impacts these differences.

The ACLU erroneously cited a recent study by stating: “Black people serve longer sentences than their White friends, as a 2019 Florida State University study found.”

The study actually suggests Blacks are only slightly more likely (3%) to be arrested and the study had nothing to do with the length of sentence. This sort of recklessness when displaying another person’s research only works to inflame tensions during a time when we all need to be working together.

Every day, sheriffs’ deputies throughout Florida respond to thousands of calls for service. They willingly serve their communities as dedicated professionals committed to making Florida a safe place for all residents regardless of race.

When a call comes in for help, law enforcement does not ask for a person’s race, gender, religion, or sexual preference. They respond to the call — for all citizens.

The ACLU also thinks Florida’s prison system is too expensive.

Overall criminal justice spending is 5% of the state budget, and it has not increased in years. The recent increases to prison spending have been due to health care costs, and not a rising prison population.

In fact, Florida’s prison population is declining, and it has been declining for years. There are 6,000 fewer inmates in prison today than there were six years ago.

From 2008-2018, the imprisonment rate for Blacks declined by 28% and is at the lowest rate since 1989 (BJS, Prisoners in 2018).

In 2018, 7.4% more Whites were admitted to Florida’s prisons, and more Black males were released (39.9%) than White males (37.7%). (FDOC, 2017-18 Annual Report).

These numbers are not used to minimize the racial disparities that exist today, but to highlight the problem is complex and solutions will be varied.

Over the years, FSA has advocated for, and helped pass, laws that will make lasting improvements to our system, such as in 2018, with the passage of SB 1292 — Florida Criminal Justice Data Transparency System. SB 1292 requires collecting and reporting of criminal justice data for all stakeholders and the law has been called historic (Criminal Justice News), trailblazing and groundbreaking (Bloomberg Law), and a model for other states (USA Today).

Florida’s Criminal Justice Data Transparency System will lead to better decisions and accountability at all stages of the criminal justice system.

Supporting this new data transparency system is not the only reform FSA has supported during the past five years. FSA also supported the following pieces of criminal justice reform legislation:

— The expansion of juvenile civil citation programs by allowing for more than one citation to be issued over a child’s life (SB 378 in 2015).

— Reform of Florida’s Contraband Forfeiture Act (civil asset forfeiture) to reduce the likelihood of misuse or abuse. The additional safeguards put in place has increased transparency and accountability and now each year all law enforcement agencies in Florida must report all forfeiture cases to the state. For the past three years, this data has been publicly available for all citizens to review (SB 1044 in 2016).

— Passage of criminal justice reform legislation. This 389-page bill contained numerous changes to the criminal code, expanded availability of inmate reentry programming, and reduced the barriers to occupational licensing for persons with a criminal history record (HB 7125 in 2019).

Next year, Florida will celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Office of Sheriff. Over those two centuries, a lot has changed in our state and sheriffs have continually adapted to the changing needs of their communities.

Citizens have brought about these changes because it is the citizens who elect their sheriffs, and in turn, it is the sheriffs who provide public safety services to their communities.

The criminal justice system is not perfect, but to cast aspersions that the entire system is racist is wrong.

Sheriffs are in the arena every day and will continue to work with all interested parties to make improvements to our shared criminal justice system. We can acknowledge the progress that has already been made and look to the future with that in mind.

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Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri is president of the Florida Sheriffs Association.

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