After more than three years of experience with the sweeping "Anti-Murder Act," the concerns of those who opposed it are being borne out. The law puts released felons back in jail for weeks while they wait for hearings on technical probation violations, wasting criminal justice resources and probably eventually causing more crime than it prevents. As Gov. Rick Scott considers ways to save money and streamline state policies, he should call for the law's repeal. It limits judicial discretion, overcrowds local jails, adds unnecessarily to state prisons and costs people their second chance to become productive members of society.
Passage of the Anti-Murder Act was a simplistic campaign promise by former Gov. Charlie Crist in reaction to the 2004 rape and murder of 11-year-old Carlie Brucia by a man out on the street after having violated his probation. Crist was intent on getting the measure through the Legislature despite its projected cost to the state prison system of $268 million over five years.
Under the law, certain categories of released felons are automatically jailed and denied bail on alleged probation violations until a hearing before a judge to determine whether they will be returned to state prison. Upon resentencing, the weight given to the probation violation is doubled, which means some people get sent back to prison to serve terms longer than the maximum sentence for the original crime, imposing a significant burden on the prison system.
Certainly a violent or serious probation violation warrants jailing and further imprisonment. But under the Anti-Murder Act, even a small, technical violation, such as failing to turn in a job hunt report on time or missing a curfew, means a ticket to jail to await a hearing that may not happen for four or five weeks. And each day in jail costs taxpayers $126.
As St. Petersburg Times staff writer Stephen Nohlgren recently reported, this can seriously disrupt the efforts of those out of prison to rebuild their lives. The intervening weeks in jail often mean losing a job and a place to live. If the probation violator is in school, he jeopardizes his financial aid and educational progress — the kinds of setbacks that make it more likely that a released felon will commit more crimes.
Repeal of this law makes financial and public policy sense. Judges would still be able to deny bail to a probation violator thought to be dangerous. But people who are clearly not a threat to society would be able to continue working toward a law-abiding life. Reducing recidivism was one of the goals of Scott's law-and-order transition team. This would be a good place to start.