Column: Effective criminal justice reform requires collaboration, conversation and creative thinking

Published Dec. 7, 2018

From high rates of incarceration and recidivism to minimum mandatory sentencing, from pretrial release to conviction integrity, issues affecting Florida's criminal justice system have been a focal point of discussion for years. While some positive changes have been implemented, many critical challenges remain that require broad collaboration for effective reform.

The Florida Bar recently convened its first Criminal Justice Summit, assembling a diverse group of stakeholders to offer insights and identify potential improvements. Elected state attorneys and public defenders, judges, legislators and practitioners came together to discuss, debate and find common ground. As the first former public defender to lead the state's legal profession, I am proud that this effort provided a forum for all three branches of government, as well as criminal justice advocates, to focus upon meaningful reforms.

Although the Florida Bar cannot take official positions on any of these issues, we are committed to helping further these discussions. Our members are uniquely qualified to provide important perspectives and to facilitate more conversations around criminal justice reform in the future.

Summit participants heard from national authorities and panels of experts, who discussed the following key areas:

SENTENCING: As of 2016, 63 percent of incarcerations were for nonviolent crimes and half of new inmates had no history of violent offenses. Our state's habitual offender laws have not had a meaningful review for more than two decades, and our prisons now house about 96,000 inmates with a current state budget for only 86,000. Panelists covered a wide range of ideas including expanding opportunities for parole, reconsidering the threshold that elevates a theft from a misdemeanor to a felony, and allowing judges more discretion, including the ability to deviate from minimum mandatory sentences when possible.

JUVENILE JUSTICE: Juveniles historically have a high recidivism rate and a greater propensity for criminal behavior once they have been exposed to adult sanctions. In theory, we should hold youthful offenders accountable without sacrificing compassion. Panelists said a consistent statewide civil citation program could help, as would enhanced communication, cooperation and collaboration among various agencies, family members and officials tasked with supervising and interacting with juvenile offenders.

SPECIALTY COURTS: Florida's drug, mental health, juvenile, veterans and other specialty courts are designed to rehabilitate defendants and reduce recidivism. Panelists agreed these courts have been successful, but need careful structuring, adequate and sustained funding, enhanced staffing and experienced judges. Discussions centered on the need for a consistent review of specialty courts, both in urban and rural parts of the state. This ensures best and proper practices and expands the courts to assist more defendants, including those charged with more serious nonviolent crimes.

MENTAL HEALTH: Nationally, Florida is among the lowest-ranked states for access to mental health treatment, resulting in big problems within a criminal justice system that annually admits about 120,000 people with mental health issues into our jails and prisons. Discussions included expanding training for local law enforcement to recognize mental health issues, ensuring the availability of specialty courts designed to handle such issues, and providing offenders with proper treatment once incarcerated.

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OFFENDER RE-ENTRY: Helping inmates prepare for life outside of prison, especially at the completion of a lengthy sentence, is critical. Combatting recidivism and assisting with a smooth transition back into society begins with ensuring that convicted felons are provided with the resources they need to succeed. Possible solutions identified are increasing job training and removing barriers to employment such as the mandatory withholding of driver's licenses for unpaid fees and fines.

A summary report on the summit by Stetson Law professor Ellen S. Podgor will be published in the January/February edition of The Florida Bar Journal; and, videos of the sessions will be available on the Bar's website for further review and continued discussions.

I am grateful to everyone who participated in this summit, but, change will not happen overnight. We must continue to further define problems and pinpoint solutions that can be agreed upon and enacted.

Michelle R. Suskauer is president of the Florida Bar. She has worked in the criminal justice system her entire career, and is partner with Dimond Kaplan & Rothstein, P.A., where she chairs their criminal litigation division. She began her legal career as an assistant public defender in West Palm Beach.