Not long ago, the Council on Criminal Justice, a nonpartisan national think tank, released a report showing that racial and ethnic disparities had declined across prison, jail, probation and parole populations in the United States.
As someone working for increased public safety and a more effective criminal justice system, and as a member of the Council’s Board of Trustees, I was heartened by this news. Among the highlights: In 2000, black people were imprisoned for drug crimes at 15 times the rate of whites; by 2016, that ratio was just under 5-to-1. Among women during the same time frame, the black-white disparity in imprisonment also fell by two-thirds, dropping from 6-to-1 to 2-to-1.
But racial disparities remain a profound problem within our justice system, and Florida is no exception. Our state fits in with the national pattern: Black defendants spend more time behind bars than white defendants for the same crimes.
Unraveling the web of factors that produce racial disparities is a complex task, and we need more research to identify what’s happening. In Florida, we also must shift our correctional approach to focus more on public safety than punishment.
The Florida Senate is taking one step forward this year – requiring racial and ethnic impact statements for legislation we consider. For years, we’ve analyzed bills to gauge their impact on state spending; the concept here is no different. By forecasting a bill’s ramifications for racial groups, we can address its consequences before passage – rather than trying to fix problems after the fact. While nobody predicts it will be a panacea, the exercise reminds us that seemingly neutral policy choices can yield disparate outcomes.
But we must go further. Florida has the third-largest prison population in the country and an incarceration rate 21% higher than the national average. Although we’ve reduced the number of people sent to prison, our inmate population is projected to start growing again in 2021.
Why? A study by the Crime and Justice Institute found that between 2007 and 2016, average sentence lengths increased by 22% for all crime types. The average time people remain in prison also grew, by 18%.
This year I’m hoping to inject some common sense into our sentencing structure. Currently, Florida has 108 mandatory minimum offenses, nearly half of which are for drug crimes. We need to unbind the hands of judges and give them discretion to depart from these mandates when warranted.
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We also must modernize Florida’s Truth in Sentencing Law based on what we now know about the diminishing returns of long prison terms. Florida is one of only a few states that require all offenders to serve 85% of their sentence. This fills our prisons with people convicted of less serious crimes, and reduces incentives for inmates to participate in programs that help them succeed upon release. Reducing the sentence threshold to 65% for nonviolent offenders is a smart, safe step.
Florida deserves a justice system that does a better job delivering equal justice – and improved public safety – for all. With people’s liberty at stake, we must ensure decisions are based on data and evidence, rather than anecdote and good intentions.
Florida State Sen. Jeff Brandes, a Republican from St. Petersburg, is chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice and vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice. He serves on the Board of Trustees for the Council on Criminal Justice.