November 6, 2017

Florida Legislature Misses Opportunity to Reform State Criminal Justice System

The 2017 session ended with overtime meetings, requiring members to take three more days to hash out their major spending differences before sending the Fiscal Year (FY) 2017-18 budget to Governor Rick Scott’s desk, and a subsequent special session to address remaining issues. However, taking an important step in reforming the state’s criminal justice system — establishing the criminal justice task force —  was not one of the results of the extra days.

In the weeks leading up to the budget there was anticipation from advocates that the Legislature was poised for major criminal justice reform: addressing the drivers of prison population growth, reforming sentencing laws such as mandatory minimums, reducing racial disparities embedded within the criminal justice system and addressing recidivism rates, among other things.

Two bills were filed, SB 458 and HB 387, which would have established a bipartisan criminal justice task force charged with conducting a comprehensive assessment of the state’s criminal justice and court and corrections systems, and recommending targeted reforms. Unfortunately, neither bill made it to the governor’s desk.

Florida’s Government Efficiency Task Force, in a report released last year, recommended that the Legislature establish an inter-branch, bipartisan task force to conduct a comprehensive review of the state criminal justice system. The report noted that Florida has the third largest prison system in the nation, with nearly 100,000 inmates, with the cost of maintaining the prison population pegged at $2.4 billion in FY 2016. This represents more than half of the total $4.9 billion appropriated for the Criminal and Civil Justice System.

Florida has one of the highest rates of incarceration in the nation, ranking 39th among the states, and one of the highest length of stay in prison statistics. These facts reflect the disproportionate use of prison as a rehabilitation tool.

If SB 458 and HB 387 had been signed into law, Florida would have joined 25 states in adopting the Justice Reinvestment Initiative. The initiative helps participating states identify the drivers of prison population growth and enact focused policies that would contain those drivers. It would also help lawmakers establish the necessary support, oversight and measurement systems to gauge outcomes.

Early results show that some of the states participating in the initiative were able to reduce prison populations, with actual and projected budget savings. These reductions did not compromise public safety, according to a report from the Urban Institute and Bureau of Justice Assistance. The report showed that these states were able to reinvest their savings in a range of programs and services such as mental health, substance abuse treatment, employment and education. Other states listed their reinvestment priorities as tied to the projected savings, ultimately helping ex-offenders smoothly and effectively transition back to their communities.

While the most serious offenses warrant incarceration, it is less effective and efficient for non-serious, non-violent drug offenses and property crimes. Moreover, incarceration for the latter two crimes results in unintended consequences for the spouses and children of the incarcerated. These families risk poverty and homelessness, especially if the incarcerated parent is the breadwinner of the family. As a result, incarceration exacts additional economic and social costs to the state.

Children of an incarcerated parent are more likely to be suspended or expelled from school than their peers. The stress and trauma of parental incarceration is as damaging as the effects of abuse, domestic violence or divorce. Accordingly, parental incarceration results in long-term negative effects on the development and well-being of children.

Upon release, former inmates face serious obstacles in finding stable and sustainable employment. These individuals have significantly less potential to earn sufficient income to meet the needs of children and families and are less likely to benefit from economic opportunities in the community.

It is imperative that state policymakers take the necessary steps to rethink the state’s prison system. By establishing a bipartisan criminal justice taskforce, Florida policymakers have the opportunity to analyze the policy choices that have contributed to the high growth of the state prison population and determine anew the balance between adequate consequences and public safety. Even though this year’s legislative session is over, the task of reforming the state’s criminal justice system is not.

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