George Gibbs Center for Economic Prosperity

S⁠t⁠rong Major⁠i⁠⁠t⁠y of Flor⁠i⁠d⁠i⁠ans Wan⁠t⁠ Cr⁠i⁠m⁠i⁠nal Jus⁠t⁠⁠i⁠ce Reform

By: The James Madison Institute / 2016

It should surprise no one that Floridians have wised up to the costly and ineffective tough on crime philosophy that dominated state policy a quarter century ago.

On Monday, the James Madison Institute and Charles Koch Institutejointly released a pollthat overwhelmingly supports criminal justice reform.

“For the past few years as we’ve worked in the criminal justice arena, we have experienced first hand the changing debate on these issues. The poll solidified what we’ve come to know –Floridians want criminal justice reform,” said Sal Nuzzo, vice president of policy at JMI. “We’ve been talking the talk and now it is time to walk the walk. Policymakers should take serious strides toward improving the outcomes of those within the criminal justice system, increasing public safety and continuing to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars.”

Florida's tough on crime laws passed during the 1980s and 1990s included tough sentencing guidelines, such as mandatory minimums, which were born from a desire to see uniformity in both sentencing and time served. The result in Florida was that by 2010, Florida's incarceration rate was 38 percent higher than the national average.

Florida now houses 100,000 prisoners in itsstate prison system, while the Florida Department of Corrections supervises a population larger than that in 44 of the state's 67 counties.

The JMI/Koch poll results show Floridians are dissatisfied with the status quo. Have a look:

Systemic Problems

72 percent of Floridians agree or strongly agree that it is important to reform the criminal justice system in Florida.
75 percent of Floridians agree or strongly agree that the prison population is costing our country too much money.
Almost two-thirds of Floridians believe there are too many nonviolent offenders in prison.

Collateral Consequences of Incarceration

72 percent believe felons should be able to get licenses to work after they finish serving their sentences.
74 percent believe prisons should focus more on rehabilitation than punishment.

Fixing Juvenile Justice

70 percent believe juveniles should be held in a system separate from adult offenders.
When asked who Floridians trust more to make decisions about whether to charge a juvenile as an adult, those polled overwhelmingly choose judges over prosecutors by a 47-point margin.

“Across the country dozens of states have enacted meaningful criminal justice reforms to improve public safety, reduce costs, respect the dignity of individuals, and make victims whole,” said Vikrant P. Reddy, senior research fellow at the Charles Koch Institute. “For years, Florida, one of the largest and most influential states in the country, had remained the exception. But recent changes to mandatory minimum sentencing, improved civil asset forfeiture practices, and a renewed focus on mental health treatment demonstrate that things are changing in the Sunshine State.

Florida’s leaders should continue this momentum, listen to their constituents, and keep working toward enacting criminal justice reforms,” Reddy said.

Criminal justice reform has long been an issue for JMI and it figured large on the agenda of the nonprofit think tank'sPolicy Summit in August.

Florida was hardly the only state to enact tough on crime legislation. But it's been slow to consider reform. Legislatures in Alabama, Texas and Georgia have all made — and continue to make — criminal justice reform a priority and have passed bills aimed at reducing prison populations and improving re-entry programs for inmates. In fact, Texas has been able to close three prisons and several juvenile detention centers.

The good news is that Florida is now joining the national conversation. Certainly Rep. Katie Edwards, D-Plantation, who works well on both side of the aisle, is quietly championing criminal justice reform. She introduced and saw passed a bill that dealt with mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. Sentencing someone with eight hydrocodone pills to three years in state prison didn't make sense, she said.

Direct filing for juveniles into adult court is a more complex issue, she has said. The Senate passed a bill limiting prosecutors' ability to direct file, but the House version died in committee. She certainly predicts it will be back.

The JMI/Koch survey was conducted by Survey Sampling International in July 2016. All participants were residents of Florida and were surveyed by use of an opt-in Web-based panel. The survey had 1,488 total respondents in English and Spanish with a +/- 3 percentage points margin of error.

Founded in 1987, the James Madison Institute is one of Florida’s oldest and largest nonpartisan, nonprofit research and educational organizations. It describes itself as dedicated to maximizing opportunities for all by promoting economic freedom, limited government and personal liberty.

The Charles Koch Institute is an educational organization focused on the importance of free societies and how they increase well-being for the overwhelming majority of people.