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On open records, half Florida’s legislators rate F or D

Half of Florida’s legislators failed or nearly failed in a review of their support for public records and meetings given by Florida newspapers and an open-government group after this year’s legislative sessions.

In a “scorecard” produced by the Florida Society of News Editors and based on information provided by Florida’s First Amendment Foundation — which tracked a priority list of public records exemptions — the 160 legislators totaled three Fs, 77 Ds, 71 Cs, and 9 Bs.

Each year FSNE completes a project devoted to Sunshine Weeka nationwide initiative to educate the public about the importance of transparent government. This year FSNE members created a scoring system to grade legislators on their introduction of bills and their final votes.

“As an advocate for open government, the grades of course, are disappointing,” said Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, a nonprofit supported mostly by newspapers and broadcasters.

Several lawmakers contacted about their grades questioned the concept of fairly and accurately scoring how they addressed and decided on open records bills.

“It’s a little simplistic to think you can reduce this to a mathematical formula. It’s a little more complicated,” said Rep. Rick Roth, R-Wellington, who has a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Emory University,

Roth, who was graded a D-minus, added, “The Sunshine Law is great in principle, but what it actually assumes is everybody is a crook. I just think it needs a little bit of tweaking.”

Florida’s Legislature established public records laws as early as the early 20th century, created the Government in the Sunshine Law in the late 1960s, and in 1992 established a “constitutional right of access.” Because of Florida’s Government in the Sunshine Law, the state’s records and meetings are more accessible than in most states. But the Legislature has, year in and year out, instituted, or considered instituting, numerous exemptions. The body, on average, imposes up to a dozen a year.

Petersen said the recent session accounted for “a near record number of new exemptions created, but we see few bills that actually would improve access to either meetings or records.”

The 2017 Legislature created 26 exemptions and expanded another, then instituted yet one more exemption during its special session. Should Gov. Rick Scott approve all the 28 new exemptions, the grand total over the years would be 1,150.

Where does your legislator rank? See the scorecard

The three legislative Fs — actually F-minuses — were assigned to two representatives from southwest Florida and one from the Jacksonville area.

The single lowest score went to Rep. Bob Rommel, R-Naples, who sponsored House Bill 351, which would have made secret records of public college president searches; and House Bill 843, which would have allowed two members of a government board to meet privately. Both bills failed. Rommel also voted on the House floor against government openness in five of seven cases.

Rommel was joined in drawing an F by Rep. Byron Donalds, another Naples Republican; and Kimberly Daniels, a Jacksonville Democrat.

Daniels did not personally return a reporter’s call, instead providing a prepared statement that doesn’t directly address her grade but says that getting the two public records exemptions passed, as well as four others, as a freshman legislator, “exceeds more than I could have imagined accomplishing.”

And all five voted for HB 111, which hides the identification of murder witnesses — Harrell co-sponsored it — as well as SB 118, which hides criminal histories. Those two bills passed and were signed by Scott.

No legislator earned an A in the same way the others got the Fs. Rep. Joseph Geller, D-Aventura, voted for government openness in six of seven floor votes and earned a B-plus, the same grade given to Rep. Lori Berman, D-Lantana.

Despite his favorable score, Geller is bucking for “at least an A-minus,” pointing out that he so frequently asks about the First Amendment Foundation’s position on open government bills that he said he “got a pretty bad ribbing about it on the floor from other legislators.”

Just six Democrats and three Republicans earned a score of B-minus or better. And 17 Democrats and 63 Republicans drew grades of D-plus or worse.

For Democrats, the most common grade was a C-minus. Dozens of Republicans drew C-minus grades, but more got a D-plus.

Scores in the House were much more likely to be lower than those in the Senate. Some of that may be because of HB 111, which drew nearly two dozen sponsors and co-sponsors in the House. The bill, which hides information about witnesses to murders, was signed by Scott in May.

Roth, of Wellington, defended his position on secrecy for the process of hiring public college presidents, explaining that while he’d be OK with making candidates public once there’s a “short list” of finalists, he feared scaring away top-flight candidates who don’t want their respective college leadership to know they’re shopping for a new position.

On HB 843, dealing with talks between two officials, Roth said he voted for it — in fact he was a co-sponsor — but said it probably went too far and “I’m glad it failed.” He said he’d like to see a new bill with conditions that would satisfy opponents — such as requiring staff be present and notes be taken to be made public later. He said he supports trying to head off “skullduggery” but he said many elected bodies now are dominated by staffers who “pretty much drive the bus,” and since officials can’t talk in advance, “they don’t come to the board meeting fully informed.”

Roth also noted the bill to protect crime witnesses does require they’re eventually identified, and while he didn’t remember much of SB 118, he saw a desire to protect the privacy of people who had committed crimes in the past.

The First Amendment Foundation’s Petersen did note that, because the scorecard reflects only votes and sponsorship, it might skew perception of legislators’ attitudes toward open government.

For example, she said, Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Atlantis, who is in line to become Senate Democratic leader in 2018, “always has something to say about open government when something comes up on the (Senate) floor.”

But, she said, “what we would like to see is more awareness from some legislators, and we’re hoping that’s what this project will do.”

She said the last bill that improved access to meetings was pushed three years ago by Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, now Senate President. And, she said, “We haven’t seen anything passed by the Legislature to enhance the right of access to public records since 1995. We did see a couple of bills that would improve access, but they didn’t even get a committee hearing.”

Some South Florida lawmakers also argued the scorecard’s narrow focus on open government doesn’t leave room for considering good policy.

On HB 111, for example, “It’s not that hard of a reach to say this law will keep others from being murdered,” said Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach, who earned a C-minus. ” I realize they (the First Amendment Foundation) are a one-issue, one-note organization. But at a certain point, reality comes crashing in to any philosophy.”

And Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, who also earned a C-minus, said, “It’s not that I don’t respect the First Amendment Foundation. It’s that I’m going to do whatever I can do as a legislator to begin to bring justice to individuals who are being murdered senselessly.”

Rep. Jared Moskowitz, a Coral Springs Democrat and another of those who earned a C-minus, said, “People are trying to get good grades from these organizations, instead of looking at whether it’s fair policy. The only grade that matters is the one that my residents give me when they decide to re-elect me into office.”

Two of the top four grades went to Republican senators from Tampa Bay: Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg and Bill Galvano of Bradenton.

“Our goal is that there be a completely transparent and open government,” Brandes said. He, along with Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg — who received a B-minus — sponsored legislation that protects court clerks from being sued if they release confidential information due to an error committed by a lawyer involved in a case. Current law isn’t clear on the issue.

Diamond called HB 843, the proposal to let two elected officials meet, an “existential threat” to open government in Florida.

Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, who earned a D-plus, supported HB 843.

“In the Legislature, we can meet with another legislator one-on-one, so I thought that the state government shouldn’t be treated any differently than the local government,” he said.

Thirteen Tampa Bay area lawmakers scored below a C.

“This ‘scorecard’ was created by a special interest group that thinks legislators should cater to the group’s own political agenda rather than do what is in the best interest of the people of Florida,” said Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, who scored a D-plus.

Fred Piccolo, a spokesman for House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Lutz — who scored a D-plus — called inclusion of HB 111, the witness-identity bill, in the scorecard, “just plain silly.” And Latvala said, “If I have to vote on that bill 100 more times, I will vote 100 more times for that bill.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

House Republican Dan Raulerson wants everyone to own a gun

The attempted assassination Wednesday morning of Louisiana Republican Congressman Steve Scalise in suburban Washington D.C. has shaken the nation.

Certainly, lawmakers now realize how vulnerable they are to mentally unstable people with access to firearms who disagree with them politically.

At Friday’s Tampa Tiger Bay Club, five members of the Hillsborough County Legislative Delegation were asked their thoughts on what the shooting means for Floridians, and the nation.

Plant City Republican House member Dan Raulerson said the answer was simple — everyone, especially lawmakers — should be armed.

“I think each one of those congressmen should be carrying a weapon. I think we all should be carrying a weapon,” he said, creating a buzz of dissent in the audience among the liberal-leaning Tiger Bay members at Friday’s meeting at the Ferguson Law Center in downtown Tampa.

“I’m sorry folks, I’m sorry, but here’s the point,” Raulerson said. “The Constitution gives us the right to bear arms, but also gives us the responsibility to own and operate a weapon.”

As widely noted, probably the only reason there wasn’t more carnage on that baseball field in Alexandria, Virginia where Congressional Republicans were at practice was that Scalise, as a member of House leadership, had police protection. That’s something that most regular members of Congress don’t have.

“Now we’re discussing should we fund armed security for each of us?” Raulerson asked with disdain. “No, we can’t do that, we can’t afford that. But we do have the right and the ability to protect ourselves, and that’s what the Constitution gives us.”

The other two Republicans on the panel — Tampa House District 63 Rep. Shawn Harrison and Brandon Sen. Tom Lee — wouldn’t go as far as Raulerson in providing a tidy policy prescription based on the Wednesday’s shooting.

“Life is about balance. Law abiding citizens should be allowed to own guns,” said Harrison. “We have to do a better job of keeping guns out of the hands of people who have mental instability. Clearly what we had was a crazy person in Virginia who hated a different member of a political party, and took that out on those members of different political parties.”

Federal law enforcement officials identified the alleged shooter as James Hodgkinson, 66, of Belleville, Illinois, who died following a shootout with authorities. He was said to be a Bernie Sanders supporter who loathed President Donald Trump and other Republicans.

Harrison said there’s too much hate in the country.

“We need to start realizing that just because you have an ‘R’ or a ‘D’ next to your name, you’re not the enemy of the other side,” he said, adding that “we need to work on constructive dialogue to keep crazy people from doing crazy things.”

Lee compared the situation to the drug problem in America, saying whether it’s pill mills or heroine or Fentanyl, “these are a demand-size problem, not supply-side problems.”

The two Democrats on the panel — St. Petersburg-based lawmakers Darryl Rouson and Wengay Newton, chimed in as well.

Rouson talked about the fact that he was pleased that though there was a slew of pro-gun bills on the agenda of some lawmakers (such as Sarasota Senate Republican Greg Steube, who had 10 such bills filed), few of them passed this year.

Newton said it was all about ensuring that the mentally ill didn’t get access to firearms, though he didn’t say how that could be accomplished.

“The laws are only put in for people who abide by the law,” he said. “If you’re not a law-abiding citizen, the law does not mean Jack.”

The Republicans on the panel were also challenged on two consecutive questions from the audience about their refusal to expand Medicaid when it came before them back in 2013 (that was the only year when a serious attempt for a hybrid form of Medicaid expansion was passed in the Senate but lost in the House).

Harrison had the distinction of being one of only three House Republicans to support the Senate bill (which earned him applause when he said that).

“My belief was while the feds are paying 100 percent, why not see if it can work?” he said.

Lee also supported the plan (only St. Petersburg Republican Jeff Brandes opposed it in the Senate). He disputed that it was a clash between the parties, and said, in this case, it was “inner chamber problems.”

When asked how much they are paying for their health insurance, all five lawmakers confessed it was only $180 a month.

“Must be nice,” one audience member muttered.

With law now in place, Tampa Bay region moves closer to regional transit

Although modest in scope, Tampa Bay area lawmakers and business officials are happy that Gov. Rick Scott signed legislation (SB 1672) they believe is the first step toward creating a regional network to push for transit.

The bill changes the actual title of TBARTA. It will now be the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority (it used to be “transportation”).

The new agency is slightly smaller in scope in terms of geography, but not smaller than originally envisaged by Clearwater Republican Jack Latvala, the bill’s Senate sponsor. The new TBARTA will include five counties — originally to include only three: Hillsborough, Pinellas, and Pasco.

Later on, Manatee and Hernando counties were added. Now, only Citrus and Sarasota are the odd counties out.

The TBARTA board will consist of 15 members, including some from the business community to be selected by Scott, in addition to those selected by lawmakers.

An amendment supported by Tampa Bay-area Republican (and anti-light rail) Sens. Tom Lee and Jeff Brandes says that any funding of commuter, heavy or light rail must have approval by the Legislature.

 

Jeff Brandes files amendment to medical marijuana in Senate

Sen. Jeff Brandes is proposing a sweeping change to his chamber’s medical marijuana implementation bill that would, among other things, remove a limit on the number of licenses for medical marijuana treatment centers (MMTCs).

The St. Petersburg Republican filed the 63-page strike all amendment late Wednesday.

His “Putting Florida Patients First Act” also removes a requirement that marijuana growers and sellers be “vertically integrated,” or share ownership.

The amendment will be formally offered on the Senate floor Thursday, an assistant said.

It would be the first opportunity for the Senate to vote “for the free market,” he added.

Sen. Rob Bradley‘s underlying bill (SB 8-A) will be taken up by the Health Policy Committee at 8 a.m.

The panel also will consider an accompanying bill (SB 6-A) that creates an exemption under the state’s public records law for personal identifying information of marijuana patient “caregivers.”

Legislation moving in both chambers would add more growing licenses and sets a “soft cap” of 25 retail locations allowed throughout the state. That limit could increase as the number of patients increases in coming years.

Lawmakers are meeting in Special Session this week to consider education, tourism marketing and economic development funding, with implementation of the state’s medical marijuana constitutional amendment, passed by voters in 2016, officially added to the call Wednesday.

 

Rick Scott signs death warrant for Hillsborough Public Transportation Commission

Among the bills Governor Rick Scott signed into law on Tuesday is HB 647, which eliminates of the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission by December 31 of this year.

The agency, originally created by a special act of the Florida Legislature in the 1970’s and the only one of its kind in the state, has been shrouded in controversy for years. It’s last executive director,  Kyle Cockreamremains under investigation for his handling of public records.

The PTC had been criticized for years by local lawmakers, but previous attempts to dismantle the agency consistently fell short.

That changed however, after extensive reporting about the agency’s handling of ride sharing services Uber and Lyft ultimately compelled the entire Hillsborough County delegation to agree to a local bill sponsored by Tampa Republican House member Jamie Grant that would dismantle the organization.

“The public has lost complete faith in the ability of this agency to regulate credibly, equitably and efficiently,” Grant declared in announcing his legislation.

The beginning of the end for the agency started in 2010, when Cesar Padilla, then the executive director of the agency, resigned after it was reported that he had been moonlighting as a security guard.

There was also the case of former County Commissioner Kevin White, was busted in 2008 for taking bribes for helping tow company operators to get permits in his role as PTC chair. White ended up serving three years at the U.S. Penitentiary in Atlanta.

The PTC caught the attention of lawmakers like Grant and Jeff Brandes after the PTC went after Uber when it introduced its Uber Black limo service during the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa. The PTC shut that effort down quickly.

And then came Uber and Lyft into Hillsborough County in the spring of 2014. As those two companies refused to comply with PTC regulations (as they did in other jurisdictions throughout the country), PTC agents began citing those drivers, leading to court actions and more than two years of fighting before an agreement bringing both companies into compliance occurred last month.

Hillsborough County Tax Collector Doug Belden and the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office are scheduled to provide an update to the Board of County Commissioners on Wednesday on how the transition of the duties of the PTC into other parts of Hillsborough County’s government are going. The county is also expected to sign an interlocal agreement with heath governments of Tampa, Plant City and Temple Terrace on regulating for hire vehicles.

Joe Henderson: Tallahassee gets special session, the public gets the bill

After the budget compromise reached by Gov. Rick Scott, Senate President Joe Negron, and House Speaker Richard Corcoran, the biggest question hanging over the Legislature’s three-day special session this week is whether there is enough time for some lawmakers to grow a backbone.

Only one of two things can happen.

There will either be a full-blown party revolt at how this was handled, followed by points, counterpoints, then fire and pestilence raining down on the state capital as rank-and-file members stand up to their leaders. I’m not betting on that one, by the way.

Or … party leaders will tell members how to vote because this compromise is the greatest thing since craft beer was invented.  After some serious harrumphing in private, those legislators will fall into line, lest their future committee assignments reflect the cost of rebellion.

The latter is the smart wager.

Democrats might as well send their “nay” votes in by Skype because Florida’s one-party system of Republican control has rendered them irrelevant.

In the musical Hamilton, there is a scene that could have doubled for what happened in Tallahassee. Corcoran, Scott and Negron were three key figures in the room where it happened. Decisions were happening, and other leaders need not apply. On Friday, they were kind enough to share news of the deal they reached.

Scott got what he wanted. Corcoran got what he wanted.

What everyone else got was a take-it-or-leave-it deal that smacked of smoke-filled rooms and quid pro quos. Even Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes, who chairs the Senate’s budget panel on tourism and economic development, was left out of the conversation.

That led to this cynical tweet from Republican state Senator and possible gubernatorial candidate Jack Latvala: “It’s a shame the House wouldn’t negotiate during the regular session. Now we have to spend $60-70k a day on a special session.”

Write that on the tombstone for this Legislative Session.

Scott salvaged his priorities — more money for tourism promotion and incentives (read: taxpayer cash) for businesses to create jobs here. In the wake of the statewide backlash against the controversial HB 7069, which diverts millions from public schools to charters, Scott got a little more cash for public schools. I sense that will be coming to a U.S. Senate campaign ad next year.

Educators were not impressed.

“The gaping flaws in HB 7069 haven’t changed with this suggested increase in funding,” Florida Education Association President Joanne McCall said in a written statement.

“It doesn’t even pay for the massive giveaway to charter schools included in the bill. The governor and the legislative leaders who cooked up these changes and called for a special session are not addressing the needs of the parents and students in this state.”

This is probably a good time to recall that Corcoran called the union “downright evil” last because it opposed his plan for charter schools.

He added that the union’s stance was tantamount to “attempting to destroy the lives of almost 100,000 children, mostly minority, and all of them poor.”

Corcoran really, really wanted more money for those “Schools of Hope” charters that would otherwise have gone to public schools. Assuming lawmakers go along to get along, Corcoran wins.

Scott wins.

And what do we, the people, receive?

As always, we get the bill.

Welcome to Tallahassee.

Associated Industries releases 2017 Voting Record report

The voting record report is out.

Associated Industries of Florida released its 2017 Voting Record report. Published for more than four decades, the annual report is considered one of the definitive legislative scorecards for the business community. This year, the organization calculated more than 208,966 votes on 1,955 bills with 848 legislators.

“This session, AIF faced a variety of tough issues on behalf of Florida’s business community, including opposing any measure that would have made it more expensive for businesses to operate, such as prejudgment interest and fighting to preserve the insurance premium tax salary credit,” said Tom Feeney, the president and CEO of AIF, in a statement. “Additionally, AIF was a proud advocate for Florida’s business community, actively engaging on measures, such as reducing the business rent tax, addressing the workers’ compensation system, making 5G wireless technology a reality and protecting productive private agricultural land.”

Feeney said while AIF accomplished many of its priorities during the 2017 Legislative Session, “this year’s Voting Records vary from what (AIF has) seen in years’ past.”

The report shows the lowest percentages since 2002 for both the Senate and House, with the Senate voting in favor of the business community 74 percent of the time. The House, according to the report, voted in favor of the business community 79 percent of the time.

“Although Florida’s business community had to fight back initiatives that would have negative impacted our state’s small and large businesses, we did make some headway this session; and, we thank Governor Rick Scott and the Legislature for continuing to give our state the opportunity to have a vibrant, competitive business environment,” said Brewster Bevis, the senior vice president of state and federal affairs at AIF, in a statement.

Criminal justice reform remains a top priority for Jeff Brandes

Sen. Jeff Brandes said he plans to continue his push for criminal justice reform, advancing a multi-year process to take a closer look at the state’s criminal justice system.

Brandes, who has made criminal justice reform a top priority, was in Washington, D.C. last week for the Right on Crime annual summit. The conservative-leaning organization has been working on criminal justice issues in Texas, Louisiana, and Florida.

Brandes said the key takeaway from the summit was that “many states are struggling with criminal justice reform at the same time.”

“They’re all realizing that the current trajectory they’re on isn’t working,” said Brandes, who sits on the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. “I think one of the things is we’re learning from each other’s experiences. Texas started this years ago, and we’re learning from their experience. We know what is palatable and we know what the outcomes are.”

Brandes said Florida can learn from other states, including Texas, about “what works and what doesn’t.”

“We don’t have to go out and reinvent the wheel,” he said. “They’ve been able to have a meaningful impact and still reduce recidivism and overall crime.”

Gov. Rick Scott announced in 2016 the state’s crime rate was at a 45-year low, dropping to 3.1 percent in 2015. However, the state saw an increase in the number of murders, rapes and motor vehicle thefts during that same time period.

But Brandes said while crime is falling, the number of people in prisons remains static. And Brandes said the state needs to look at issues like sentencing, education, life skills and how to deal with addiction and mental health problems.

“What we know is that most people in jail today are going to get out. Are they going to get out as productive members of society or are they going to get out as better criminals,” said Brandes. “What are we doing (to address) education, life skills, addiction. Are we dealing with those appropriately?”

Brandes proposed a bill (SB 458) to create a 28-member task force to conduct a comprehensive review of the state’s criminal justice, courts and correction system. While the bill received unanimous support in early committee meetings, it didn’t get a vote of the full Senate before the end of the 2017 Legislative Session.

The St. Petersburg Republican has said he plans to make criminal justice reform a top priority during his term. He told the Florida Association of Professional Lobbyists last year that while it wasn’t something his constituents were clamoring for; it was an issue that needs to be addressed.

Brandes didn’t just focus on criminal justice during his trip to D.C. last week. He also met with Rep. Dennis Ross to talk about flood insurance; as well as Uber and Tesla to talk about bills passed during the 2017 Legislative Session.

Pinellas GOP heavyweights raising money for Rick Baker on Wednesday in Clearwater Beach

Former Mayor Rick Baker continues building momentum in his quest to return for a third term as St. Petersburg Mayor.

Coming off a successful campaign kickoff event last week, Baker, who served two terms from 2001-2010, is following with another high-profile reception Wednesday in Clearwater Beach.

Co-chairs of the event – with the tagline “Proven Leadership” – include renowned attorney Brian Aungst Jr., former Pinellas GOP Chair Jay Beyrouti and restaurateur (and one-time “Mr. Clearwater”) Frank Chivas.

According to the invite, the blockbuster bipartisan host committee includes more than four dozen prominent Pinellas County state and municipal leaders such as State Sens. Jeff Brandes and Jack Latvala, state Reps. Kathleen Peters, Wengay Newton, Chris Latvala and Chris Sprowls, former state Rep. (and Senate candidate) Ed Hooper, Pinellas County Clerk Ken Burke, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, Pinellas County Property Appraiser Mike Twitty, Seminole Mayor Leslie Waters, North Redington Beach Mayor Bill Queen, Treasure Island Mayor Robert Minning, Oldsmar Vice Mayor Dan Saracki and more.

In last week’s kickoff at the Morean Arts Center, Baker pushed his vision of “A Seamless City,” and the slogan “I’m ready to serve.” Wednesday’s event – attended by much of the Pinellas County political elite – will sure to continue that theme. Baker is facing incumbent Mayor Rick Kriseman.

The reception begins 5:30 p.m. at the Island Way Grill, 20 Island Way in Clearwater. Those interested in attending can RSVP with Rick Porter at (407) 849-1112 or rick@politicalcapitalflorida.com.

Andrew Warren and Aramis Ayala blast Jeff Sessions plan for stricter sentencing in criminal cases

In recent years, criminal justice reform, especially in drug sentencing, has taken on more momentum, with governors in some of most conservative parts of the country embracing such efforts.

In Florida, progressive State Attorney candidates like Andrew Warren in Tampa and Aramis Ayala in Orlando won their respective races last year by running on a similar platform.

The two State Attorneys joined a group of current and former prosecutors last week in blasting Attorney General Jeff Sessions recent directive that the Justice Department return to a previous policy of filing the most serious charge available against a defendant under provable facts.

“The Attorney General’s directive marks an unnecessary and unfortunate return to past ‘tough on crime’ practices that we now know simply don’t enhance or promote the safety of our communities,” wrote 31 state and local prosecutors from around the nation in a letter to Sessions.

“There is no empirical evidence to suggest that increases in sentences, particularly for low-level offenses, decrease the crime rate,” the letter continued. “Instead, we know that in many instances contact with the justice system exacerbates the likelihood of future criminal conduct and that the deterrent effect of long-term prison sentences is questionable at best,” the letter continued. “Moreover, it is important to note that national crime rates remain near all-time lows — down over 50% from their peak in 1991, to levels the country has not experienced since 1970.”

In a memo sent out to federal prosecutors on May 10, Sessions announced that he was reversing a Justice Department policy from the Obama administration that led to prosecutors in drug cases often filing charges in a way that avoided triggering mandatory minimum sentences in federal law.

“It is a core principle that prosecutors should charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense,” Sessions said in his directive. Such a move is expected to increase the chances that suspects will receive mandatory minimum sentences. That’s a significant change from the policies that Obama and former Attorney General Eric Holder had advocated. Instead, Holder gave prosecutors more latitude to avoid charges that would trigger mandatory minimums. In the last five years of the Obama administration, the number of defendants charged in federal cases dropped from about 103,000 to about 77,500, the lowest number since 1998.

GOP-controlled state legislatures in Texas, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Georgia have adopted a number of progressive initiatives in this field over the past decade. Many of those states began by establishing task forces to examine the laws that they wanted to change.

However, St. Petersburg Republican Jeff Brandes criminal justice reform bill (SB 458) died in the Senate Rules Committee earlier this month.

After he had defeated 16-year Republican incumbent Mark Ober last November, Warren said he was “grateful for the fact that Hillsborough County shares my vision of criminal justice reform.”

Others signing on to the letter include New York City District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., Baltimore State Attorney Marilyn Mosby and former Los Angeles District Attorney Gil Garcetti.

You can read the contents of that letter to Sessions here:

On May 10, 2017, Attorney General Sessions announced a new charging and sentencing policy for the United States Department of Justice that requires federal prosecutors in all cases (absent high-level approval) to “charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense” — defined as those offenses that “carry the most substantial guidelines sentence, including mandatory minimum sentences.” Any prior inconsistent policy of the Department of Justice relating to these matters was rescinded.

The Attorney General’s directive marks an unnecessary and unfortunate return to past “tough on crime” practices that we now know simply don’t enhance or promote the safety of our communities. There is no empirical evidence to suggest that increases in sentences, particularly for low-level offenses, decrease the crime rate. Instead, we know that in many instances contact with the justice system exacerbates the likelihood of future criminal conduct and that the deterrent effect of long-term prison sentences is questionable at best. Moreover, it is important to note that national crime rates remain near all-time lows — down over 50 percent from their peak in 1991, to levels the country has not experienced since 1970.

Although there are no certain benefits to the newly announced policy, there are definitive and significant costs. The increased use of mandatory minimum sentences will necessarily expand the federal prison population and inflate federal spending on incarceration. There is a human cost as well. Instead of providing people who commit low-level drug offenses or who are struggling with mental illness with treatment, support and rehabilitation programs, the policy will subject them to decades of incarceration. In essence, the Attorney General has reinvigorated the failed “war on drugs,” which is why groups ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union to the Cato Institute to Right on Crime have all criticized the newly announced policy.

As current and former elected state and local prosecutors, we are committed to prioritizing the safety, fair treatment and dignity of all members of our community. This is why we have grave concerns with the tenets embodied in the Attorney General’s directive. And it is why we agree with national law enforcement leaders who have opined that we “need not use arrest, conviction, and prison as the default response for every broken law.”

See A Crime and Justice Agenda for the New Administration, Law Enforcement Leaders To Reduce Crime and Incarceration (February 13, 2017), available at http://lawenforcementleaders.org/fighting-crime-strengthening-criminal-justice-agenda-new-administration/.

We will continue in our own jurisdictions to undertake innovative approaches that promote public safety and fairness, and that ensure that law enforcement’s finite resources are directed to the arrest and prosecution of the most serious offenders. It is through these priorities that prosecutors can best advance public safety and fortify trust in the legitimacy of our criminal justice system.

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