Smart Justice for a Safer Florida
  • Column: Time to take a hard look at state minimum mandatory sentences, too

    Tampa Bay Times – August 13, 2013

    By John Romano, Times Columnist

    We are good. We are very, very good.

    When it comes to identifying, apprehending, trying and convicting criminals, the state of Florida takes a back seat to virtually no one.

    Our prison population has more than doubled in the past 20 years and, even allowing for the size of the state, we are still near the top of the heap in prisoners per capita.

    So it’s fair to say Floridians are not soft on crime.

    The question is … are we smart on crime?

    It’s an issue worth considering, particularly after U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced Monday he was changing Justice Department policy so nonviolent, low-level drug offenders in the federal system would no longer be subject to mandatory minimum sentences.

    Surely, this was welcome news to liberals who have decried lengthy prison sentences for what they see as relatively minor offenses.

    The more interesting issue is whether conservatives will also embrace these reforms considering the drug war’s escalating cost. Particularly here in Florida, which has its own inflexible set of minimum mandatory sentences for state crimes.

    Forget all the money spent on cops looking for marijuana grow houses or frisking teenagers on street corners. And forget courthouse backlogs, or the payrolls in the offices of the public defenders and the state attorneys.

    If we are talking strictly about the housing of criminals, Florida’s Department of Corrections will spend about $2.4 billion this year. And roughly 25 percent of the prisoners in Florida were convicted of drug offenses.

    What’s worse is those drug convictions are leading to longer and longer sentences. The average prison stay for a drug offense in Florida was 10 months in 1990, according to Pew Center research. Today, the average stay is 28 months.

    Incredibly, that length of stay has grown at a faster rate than for violent crimes.

    Still want to throw the book at pot smokers?

    Please understand, I’m not trying to be flippant. There is a balance here, and it is difficult to navigate. It involves public safety, fiscal responsibility and the human toll of substance abuse. It crosses the border from the war on poverty to the war on drugs and back again.

    “The attorney general’s suggestion might be fine in New York or Massachusetts or other liberal places where they’re looking to solve problems by burying their heads in the sand, but in Florida we have taken a tough-on-crime stance,” said Barney Bishop, CEO of the Florida Smart Justice Alliance.

    “At the same time, if there are underlying issues, we need to help and treat you. When you are in our custody and control, we need to provide you the necessary services so that you have a fighting chance when you leave prison. I don’t mind paying for someone in prison, but what galls me is paying for their second or third prison term.”

    Last year, the governor vetoed legislation that would have allowed nonviolent drug offenders to complete sentences in rehab centers.

    And for years before that, state politicians have been reluctant to tinker with mandatory sentences for fear of being labeled as soft on crime.

    The question is whether we are wasting too much money and destroying too many lives with one-size-fits-all sentences for substance abusers.

    They may sound tough, but they don’t seem too smart.

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