George Gibbs Center for Economic Prosperity

Ed⁠i⁠⁠t⁠or⁠i⁠al: Bu⁠i⁠ld upon be⁠t⁠⁠t⁠er approach ⁠t⁠o cr⁠i⁠me

By: Guest Author / 2017

As Gainesville Police Chief Tony Jones has said on a number of occasions, we aren’t going to arrest our way out of our community’s crime problems.

The tough-on-crime approach that led to zero-tolerance drug laws and long mandatory minimum prison sentences is ineffective and expensive. Florida has the third-largest state prison system and yet has the country’s fifth-highest violent crime rate.

Our state must do better in steering young people from crime and reintegrating those who have served time back into society. Changing law enforcement’s approach to marijuana possession and other minor non-violent offenses would help remove barriers that keep too many people from getting a meaningful education and employment.

The Sun-sponsored Gainesville For All initiative to address racial and socioeconomic disparities in our community included a criminal justice team looking at these issues. It found the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office and Gainesville Police Department have in recent years take a smarter approach to crime, progress that must be built upon.

While the state Legislature is considering a bill requiring the use of civil citations rather than arrests for juvenile offenders, local law enforcement has long been doing so for certain first-time offenders. Alternatives should be exhausted before arresting juveniles, particularly those under age 12, and juvenile cases should be transferred to adult courts only for serious violent crimes.

Programs such as civil citations and Teen Court save money and lower recidivism rates. Jail diversion programs in adults courts have also been found to be effective in reducing recidivism. GNV4ALL recommends our community do more to help those with criminal records get the skills and opportunities needed to land decent jobs.

A felony conviction presents a barrier to employment, starting with the box on job applications that keep someone with a record from even getting an interview. Local governments have “banned the box” on their applications but additional steps should be taken by private employers and on the state level. Felons should have their voting rights restored upon completing their sentences in most cases.

These issues disproportionately impact minority populations. The Sarasota Herald-Tribune’s “Bias on the Bench” series showed that college-aged black residents of Gainesville tend to face harsher penalties for drug crimes than white students on campus, and black defendants across the state get longer sentences than whites for the same crimes.

The police department and sheriff’s office should continue community policing programs that help address these disparities. The sheriff’s office has reduced marijuana arrests by using civil citations for most of those offenses, an approach that should also be taken with other non-violent crimes.

Sentencing disparities are a more difficult problem, requiring judges and others in the criminal justice system to recognize and address implicit biases. GNV4ALL has recommended developing training that can be used in the criminal justice system and throughout our community. Schools must address biases in discipline and continue to use restorative justice programs that focus on correcting behavior.

On a state level, lawmakers need to reform the state’s mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses. The conservative James Madison Institute recently released a report finding laws that impose long sentences for offenses such as illegally possessing a small number of prescription painkillers are costly to taxpayers without improving public safety.

As Chief Jones has said, just making arrests won’t stop crime. Our community must continue to implement measures that reduce recidivism, decriminalize minor offenses and allow resources to be redirected to more serious crimes, keeping everyone safer.

— This editorial was written by Gainesville Sun opinion editor Nathan Crabbe and represents the opinion of The Sun’s editorial board.