Life in prison should be reserved for the worst of the worst — murderers, chronic violent offenders and those who commit the most serious sex crimes. But Florida condemns people to life sentences for far lesser crimes and provides them no meaningful chance at ever getting out. The state’s so-called “two strikes” law has served its time and should be stripped from the books.
The Tampa Bay Times recently investigated Florida’s Prison Releasee Reoffender Act, which is responsible for about 2,100 people currently serving life. The law dates to the 1990s, when a wave of states enacted extra penalties for repeat offenders — people who were committing crimes, going to prison, getting out and reoffending. The laws let prosecutors pursue life sentences even if the offenses didn’t injure another person. And in Florida, a life sentence usually means dying in prison — no getting out early for good behavior or anything like that.
Florida, though, went further than any other state, the Times reported, directing prosecutors to seek the maximum sentence (often life) for anyone who commits a new crime within three years of leaving prison. It also takes all discretion away from judges. Mandating maximum sentences and handcuffing judges is almost never good policy, and the human reality illustrates why.
A man, now 37, who served time in his teens while suffering from drug addiction is now imprisoned for life for an armed burglary near Pensacola in which no one was hurt. An art student in Fort Lauderdale who became addicted to cocaine robbed two motels and a gas station. Because he’d previously served a county jail sentence, he’s now in prison for life. A St. Petersburg man was one of the first people sentenced under the two-strikes law. Dorian Mackeroy had a tumultuous childhood with no father present. He got into a cycle of trouble beginning at 16. After serving a short prison sentence as an adult, he was back in St. Petersburg. While drinking with friends one night, on a dare Mackeroy wrapped a socket wrench in a bandanna and robbed a woman in her car. She was traumatized but unhurt.
All three of those men deserved to be punished. They all deserved to go to prison. But a system that condemns people to the same fate for break-ins and robberies as for premeditated murder is grievously off balance. During Mackeroy’s time behind bars, his brother was murdered and the man who killed him was imprisoned — and released in less than a decade. There is simply no justice in that disparity.
What’s more, the reoffender law does not live up to its intended purpose of deterring crime. Mackeroy had never heard of the sentencing enhancement for reoffenders until his day in court. Few Floridians outside the justice system have. Yet it’s costing state taxpayers more than $300 million a year to house the 13,600 inmates serving life without parole, including those convicted under the two-strikes law. That’s a staggering cost in lives and dollars.
State Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, long an advocate for prison reform, has repeatedly filed bills rolling back the two-strikes law, with little support. Brandes’ Republican colleagues in the Legislature should give his sound reasoning a hearing in the upcoming session. Ed Brodsky, the elected state attorney in Sarasota, told the Times it’s worth giving the law a new look to make sure it’s living up to its intended purpose.
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Rehabilitation is one of the pillars of any truly just criminal system. Punishment is the other. Florida overachieves in punishing people who have gotten into a cycle of crime, imposing the longest possible sentence even for nonviolent offenses. The state’s penal system is crying out for major reform in innumerable areas, including improving prison conditions, raising guards’ pay and abolishing the death penalty. Giving lower-level offenders back their lives and sparing more Floridians the fate of dying in prison should also be high on the list.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.