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No quick fix for probation system

It's a never-ending recipe for bad law: A high-profile crime spurs public anger, which prompts pandering politicians to suggest remedies that make great headlines and dysfunctional public policy.

Once again, the issue at hand is the state's probation system, which faced constant criticism last year following the well-publicized death in February of 11-year-old Carlie Brucia of Sarasota _ the man accused of killing her had violated his probation _ and the so-called "Xbox murders," in which the man accused of killing six people in August in a dispute over a video game system was a felon who had violated his probation.

Brucia's case first sparked a bill requiring that violators with forcible felonies in their past _ convictions for crimes such as murder, sexual battery, carjacking or aggravated assault _ would be subjected to an automatic, five-year prison term for new crimes. Then, the Department of Corrections began arresting people for even the most minor of parole violations, clogging the jail system and pulling probation officers from courtrooms to handle the expanded workload.

Now Attorney General Charlie Crist is proposing a law to jail so-called "forcible felony violators" without bail until the court holds a "danger to the community hearing." If the court or the state concludes that the offender is not dangerous, it must say so in a written order.

Though this idea makes more sense than previous proposals, the attorney general is still too focused on substituting a law for the discretion of judges. And his requirement for written assurance simply encourages jurists and the state to take the easier path _ automatically jailing the subject, regardless of the circumstances.

Crist risks creating a system in which the most minor of violations _ say, losing a job or traveling outside the county _ will land a probationer back in jail. Even if a probationer can persuade a judge to release him, the unexpected jail sentence will probably cost him his employment and make starting a crime-free life harder.

We suggest that state officials stop passing the buck and upgrade the probation system we already have, providing funds for more officers and training. Certainly, forcible felony violators or those who have violated probation before deserve greater scrutiny. Corrections Secretary James Crosby should put his probation officers back into courtrooms to help judges make these important decisions.

It's not the type of solution that earns easy approval from frustrated citizens. But it is the kind of clear-eyed leadership that Crist, who is widely expected to run for governor in 2006, should show now _ solving problems with common sense instead of exacerbating them with a flawed, headline-grabbing initiative.