Romano: We’ve already been tough on crime, now we can be smarter, too

Razor wire and ribbon outside of the Hillsborough Correctional Institution in Riverview. (Times files)
Razor wire and ribbon outside of the Hillsborough Correctional Institution in Riverview. (Times files)
Published February 9 2018
Updated February 10 2018

We already have sheriffs, and prison guards. We already have judges, and bondsmen.

When it comes to crime in Florida, what we need more of is economists.

And maybe some math nerds.

We need to pay attention to what the data and numbers are telling us about our criminal justice system before its costs — both financially and socially — consume us.

Florida incarcerates a higher percentage of its citizens than 40 other states. And when you consider our size, it’s no wonder Florida is pouring $2.4 billion a year into its prison system.

The costs are unsustainable, and the returns are wildly deficient. For too long we’ve used prison as an out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach to handling crime. It’s time we get more efficient. More creative. It’s time we get much, much smarter in the criminal justice system.

That’s where Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, comes in. Brandes, along with Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, and a few others in the Legislature, want to revamp strategies that have put a greater emphasis on locking people up instead of fixing the problems that lead to crime in the first place.

"The current system doesn’t work well for anyone,’’ Brandes said. "We would be better off spending our law enforcement money for more boots on the ground, more officers solving and preventing crimes in our communities instead of paying all of this money to keep people locked away in prison.

"We have to recognize the difference between people we are afraid of, and the people we’re just mad at. Let’s make sure the violent sex offenders, murderers, rapists are removed from society. But let’s not treat the people we’re mad at — the nonviolent drug offenders, addicts, people with mental health problems — the same way. Locking them up won’t make them better people. In fact, we’re more likely to make them worse when we house them with violent criminals.’’

This isn’t just a theoretical argument for Brandes. He’s bringing research to the table that shows other states have come to the same conclusion.

The Crime and Justice Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group based in Boston, took a deep dive into Florida’s prison system at the request of the state Senate.

What it found is that while fewer people have been entering prison in recent years, the prison population could continue to grow because we’re not letting people out.

Tough-on-crime legislation, such as mandatory minimum sentencing and the law requiring at least 85 percent of a sentence be served, have kept violent offenders off the streets. But our sentencing laws have become so rigid, they’ve also swept up too many people who would be better served with drug rehabilitation, mental health counseling or job placement and supervision.

Instead, we pay to support those people in prison. And we often pay to take care of their families who are left destitute while a family breadwinner is behind bars.

"The original notion was that incarceration reduces crime, and if we don’t send people to prison or if we release them early, there will be blood in the streets,’’ said Len Engel, the policy director at the institute and an author of the study. "But what we’ve seen from states that have adopted some of these new policies is that crime numbers are continuing to decline.

"Incarceration shouldn’t be the default option. You want policies that are based not on anecdote, but by data-driven evidence.’’

We’ve already done this on the local level. Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri got on board early by recognizing the value of civil citations and diversion programs.

Now Brandes, Rouson and others want to bring criminal justice reform to the state level. Brandes has a slew of bills moving through the Senate aimed at correcting bad behavior instead of slamming a jail door and throwing away the key.

SB 694 would give judges more discretion in mandatory minimum sentencing for drug violations when there is no violence or evidence of trafficking. SB 1206 would utilize electronic monitoring with work release programs for eligible offenders.

Other bills would include split sentencing that allows a portion of a sentence to be served in drug rehab or mental health counseling, or substituting community service for unpaid fines that often lead to poverty-level residents being locked up.

Florida also considers any theft of $300 or more a felony. Nearly every other state in the South treats that as a misdemeanor with the felony threshold at $1,500. In Texas, it’s $2,500.

These bills have been well-received in the Senate, but the more conservative House of Representatives will be a harder sell. Brandes doesn’t expect a criminal justice overhaul to occur in a single session, but he’s hopeful lawmakers will eventually buy into the data-based evidence.

"We can make our communities safer, we can make our prison system more efficient, we can help the people we are incarcerating to get better results out of their lives,’’ Brandes said. "There are proven, tested ways of making this happen. Florida has been behind on this for too long.’’

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