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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

As criminal justice reforms gain national momentum, Florida lags with lack of 'political will'



As other states reformed their criminal justice systems in the last year to reduce  prison populations, update their sentencing laws and establish new programs for the re-entry of offenders, Florida remained on the sidelines according to a new report from the bi-partisan U.S. Justice Action Network.

“There’s been some question whether there is enough political will to move forward on criminal justice reforms [in Florida,]’’ said Marc Levin, policy director of the conservative advocacy group Right On Crime, a member of the network, during a conference call with reporters Monday.

With 2.3 million Americans behind bars at a cost to taxpayers of $80 billion a year, the group advocates for changes to make the criminal justice system “smarter, fairer and more cost effective.” Its end-of-the-year report detailed sentencing reforms made not only at the federal level but in states.

Legislatures in Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania passed bills to improve r e-entry opportunities for felons, and reform their criminal forfeiture process in 2015.  Alabama enacted a “justice reinvestment package” to reduce its prison crowding problems. The initiative puts a priority on dedicating prison space to violent offenders while expanding alternatives for non-violent and low-risk offenders.

Utah reduced sentences for low-level drug possession and the result has been “significant reductions in prison populations,” Levin said.

Texas “stopped decades of massive prison building and enacted a justice reinvestment plan,” and the incarceration rate dropped 24 percent, Levin said. As a result, the state closed three adult prisons and half a dozen juvenile detention facilities.

In Georgia, Republican Gov. Nathan Deal has elevated criminal justice reform to a top priority. And in Ohio, the Legislature has begun “the most sweeping review of the criminal code in the country’’ with the goal of updating its sentencing and criminal statutes, said Holly Harris, executive director of the network.

All this comes as some Florida lawmakers, and Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones, have said they believe Florida incarcerates too many low-risk offenders, at a significant cost to the state. But state leaders -- from Gov. Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi and legislative leaders -- have not made criminal justice reform a priority.

For Deborrah Brodsky, executive director of the Tallahassee-based Project for Accountable Justice which has been advocating many of these reforms for the past three years, Florida is surrounded by states that are adopting reform policies that not only reduce crime but reduce incarceration, turn lives around and reduce recidivism.

"Look at the map and you'll see Florida is truly an outlier,'' she said. "Florida is losing ground as other states are building bipartisan consensus through leadership that is tired of spending more and more money on prisons with poor rates of return and is making changes that invest in a more productive and healthy citizenry."

Levin noted that efforts by the Project for Accountable Justice and the James Madison Institute have been effective at forming the juvenile justice system in Florida and reducing the number of kids incarcerated. But to achieve broad-scale reforms in the adult system, the state must officially ask for technical assistance and funds from the U.S. Department of Justice Department -- through a signed letter from the governor, president of the Senate and speaker of the House – which Florida has not done.

“We are working at generating additional momentum,’’ Levin said of Florida. “It’s been a state that over the last decade has seen a large increase in prison population.

The Justice Action Network is a coalition of eight conservative and progressive groups that include the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Americans for Tax Reform, the Center for American Progress, the Faith & Freedom Coalition, FreedomWorks, the Leadership Conference Education Fund, the NAACP and Right on Crime.

Next year, the group plans to target the states of Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and Maryland to make reforms a priority and it will focus special attention on Louisiana, after the issue became a pivotal issue in the governor’s race.

“It shows these issues are not just good policy, they also make good politics,’’ Harris said.

Levin said that one key component of all this discussion is the “tremendous opportunity for bipartisanship.” Unlike the “traditional model where both sides are compromising to get something done,” they are able to allow both sides “to embrace their principles,’’ he said.

Reducing mass incarceration works for conservatives, who want to shrink government, save money for taxpayers and encourage more personal responsibility, while for progressives, the reforms help to keep families together and reduce the likelihood that children will have parents incarcerated, he said.

Meanwhile, many of Florida’s Southern neighbors have adopted the “ban the box” legislation that has been introduced in the Florida Legislature for years but made no headway. The measure eliminates or delays questions of a criminal history in the job application process. Including the information on the criminal history form often closes the door to employment for many who have turned around their lives, said Rebecca Vallas, director of anti-poverty policy at the Center for American Progress.

There are now 19 states that have adopted the “ban the box” reforms, including six in the last year: Georgia, Virginia, Ohio, Vermont, Oregon and New York. Private companies such as Koch Industries, Wal-Mart and Target have also adopted the “ban the box” as a policy.

[Last modified: Monday, December 21, 2015 7:23pm]


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