Smart Justice for a Safer Florida
  • Editorial: Time for Florida to get smart on justice reforms

    Orlando Sentinel – September 29, 2013

    Is it just us or does sentencing and corrections reform in Florida play like a scene from “50 First Dates?” That’s the rom-com about a woman with short-term memory loss who forgets her persistent suitor the next morning after every date.

    Consider: At a panel discussion Tuesday in Tallahassee, state Rep. Dennis Baxley, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and reform advocates had a date with Georgia officials.

    Baxley heard how the Georgia Assembly passed a law last year that, among other things, overhauled penalties for simple possession of illicit drugs and created degrees of burglary, forgery and theft.

    The payoff: Georgia expects improved public safety and $264 million in savings over the next five years.

    But wait. In 2011, state senators had a date with a Texas lawmaker who shared the Lone Star State’s brand of what advocates call “justice reinvestment.” Texas expanded diversion programs and embraced sentencing flexibility. The result: reduced prison population and recidivism rates.

    Yet, somehow Florida leaders apparently forget the proven results and forget to adopt game-changing reforms to tame a bloated corrections budget. Reforms that could spare taxpayers the cost of building a projected nine new prisons at $95 million a pop by 2015 to warehouse an inmate population that’s projected to start growing again after a recent dip. Operating costs for each new prison also will tack an additional $27 million on the outsized corrections budget.

    Ballooning budgets led U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to junk mandatory minimums for minor drug offenses. And it’s why Florida TaxWatch in recent years has touted millions in savings to be had with smart justice reforms such as reducing sentences for certain nonviolent offenders and allowing community-based supervision for low-level offenders.

    Polls show the public has an appetite for more-efficient, less-costly public-safety options. Indeed, Adam Gelb, director of the Public Safety Performance Project for The Pew Charitable Trusts, says the conversation has shifted from tough versus soft on crime to return on investment. That shift’s why governors in more than a dozen states over the past seven years have investigated and adopted sentencing and corrections reforms that keep both taxpayers and their pocketbooks safe.

    Problem is, experience in states like Texas and Georgia that have transformed public-safety policy shows leadership matters. In contrast, Gov. Rick Scott last year put the kibosh on a humble smart justice bill that would have truncated sentences for 300 nonviolent drug inmates and funneled them into comprehensive treatment education programs.

    It’s time Florida forgets outdated approaches to crime. And it’s time the state stops just courting smart justice reforms and commits to them.

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