Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Column: Floridians push for reform of state's criminal justice system

Over the summer, Pinellas County announced it would launch the Adult Pre-Arrest Diversion program, described as one of the most ambitious criminal justice reforms in Tampa Bay. Scheduled to begin this month, the program aims to divert those who commit minor crimes — such as underage possession of alcohol and marijuana or petty theft — from jail to community service.

The goal is to keep people who commit a range of petty crimes from earning a criminal record that could forever haunt them, tainting their chances of holding a job or finding a place to live.

The Pinellas County program, along with the state's sweeping reform of the civil forfeiture law in April, are early indicators that policymakers, law enforcement and the courts are responding to a rapid shift in public sentiment on criminal justice. According to a study conducted by Florida's free-market think tank, the James Madison Institute, and the Virginia-based Charles Koch Institute, Floridians are strongly moving in the direction of a comprehensive overhaul of the state's criminal justice system.

When asked about systemwide conditions, almost two-thirds of Floridians polled believe there are too many nonviolent offenders in prison. Three out of four agree or strongly agree that the prison population is simply costing our country too much money, which might explain why an overwhelming majority — 72 percent of those polled— agree or strongly agree that it is important to reform the system.

Undoubtedly, these decisive numbers reflect Floridians' disapproval of the state's failed "lock 'em up and throw away the key" policies of the recent past.

While the state's population roughly tripled between 1970 and 2014, its prison population increased by more than 1,000 percent during that same time, according to a 2015 study by the Reason Foundation.

This tremendous growth in the incarcerated population is the legacy of various "tough on crime" policies at both the state and federal level aimed at getting violent and nonviolent offenders off the streets. However, according to the same study, these policies "also required that many low-level offenders be committed to prison for crimes that other nations punish with civil sanctions or community service."

The punishments don't cease after a person serves his or her sentence.

Gaps in work history and the requirement to disclose jail time on many job applications means that, even when released, many individuals struggle to reintegrate into society and find gainful employment. Perhaps this is why, according to the JMI/CKI poll, nearly 72 percent of Floridians are supportive of polices that would allow felons to get licenses to work after they have finished serving their sentences. That's a strong vote for increasing rehabilitation services and decreasing ineffective, draconian punishment.

The poll also showed that Floridians think youthful offenders should be receiving distinct and individualized treatment, with 70 percent of poll respondents saying juveniles should be held in a system separate from adult offenders. Floridians, by a 47-point margin, also trust judges over prosecutors to make decisions about whether to charge a juvenile as an adult.

Although the JMI/CKI poll does not address policing issues, Florida, like other states, has had its share of police-related shootings that have prompted many to question the system as a whole.

According to a Washington Post database, 43 Floridians have been killed in police-involved shootings so far in 2016, while the total police-involved shooting deaths nationwide comes to 707. In 2015, also according to the Post, the numbers show 60 police-involved shooting deaths in Florida and 990 nationwide.

If we're going to restore trust in our criminal justice system, we need to urgently consider reforming policies that appear to do little to enhance public safety but do much to unnecessarily hobble the rehabilitation of those caught up by misguided "lock 'em up" measures. Fortunately, as the data overwhelmingly illustrates, Florida policymakers at both the state and local level will continue to hear Floridians loud and clear — the time for criminal justice reform is now.

Abigail R. Hall Blanco is a research fellow at the Independent Institute and an assistant professor of economics at the University of Tampa

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