While red-leaning states like Oklahoma, Texas, Georgia and Louisiana have made significant criminal justice reforms over the past decade, Florida’s GOP-led Legislature has stood still.
Thirty-three states have implemented such reforms since 2007, while Florida’s prison population continues to grow, with the state now spending more than $2.4 billion a year to incarcerate nearly 100,000 people — the third-largest prison population in the U.S.
Hoping to reverse that trend by pushing for various measures addressing juvenile justice, adult citation programs and mandatory minimums is the Florida Campaign for Criminal Justice Reform, a coalition of nonpartisan groups including the Southern Poverty Law Center and the ACLU, which is intent on seeing some changes made in 2018. Members of the coalition met before approximately 50 citizens at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Complex in Tampa Monday night.
“We’re trying to really bring Florida in line with the rest of the country, and all the reforms you’re going to hear me talk about tonight we believe will reduce the racial disparity, reduce the incarcerated population, and ultimately make our community safer,” said Raymer Maguire, the ACLU of Florida’s criminal justice manager.
Maguire said the Florida Campaign for Criminal Justice Reform’s plan is focused on encouraging rehabilitation over punishment, and preparing incarcerated individuals for a life post-release that allows them to have housing, jobs and to ultimately become productive members of society.
Florida sends more children to adult court prison than any other state. From 2005-20015, the national average prison population increase was 3 percent. In Florida it’s 18 percent, the highest in the country.
“The system is broken, and it’s been broken for a long time,” said St. Petersburg Democratic state Sen. Darryl Rouson.
Among the bills he’s sponsoring in the upcoming session include reducing raising the monetary value for felony theft offenses from the current $300 threshold to $1,000. The $300 figure has not been adjusted since 1986. The national average is $1,100, and in southern states, it’s over $1,400.
The Florida Retail Federation is opposing the proposal.
Rouson has also proposed bills to reduce driver’s license suspensions for nondriving offenses (a proposal that didn’t get passed in the 2017 Session) and allowing judges to depart from mandatory minimum prison sentences under certain circumstances.
Bethany McNeil is the founder of XO Factor, which provides ex-offender services. She said housing and employment are enormous barriers for ex-felons to reintegrate themselves into their communities successfully. “Criminal justice is not a one size fits all type deal,” she said. “Once you’ve served your sentence, you should be allowed to move on.”
Crime has decreased in America for quite some time, with some notable exceptions (like Chicago).
The daily population in Hillsborough County jails peaked with an average of 4,626 people a day back in 2006, according to David Parrish, retired colonel of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office. Now it averages around 3,000 a day.
Similarly, there was approximately 75,000 booked in Hillsborough jails in 2006, while last year there was less than half of that amount — 38,000.
“This is a phenomenon that’s taken place in most major urban population centers,” said Parrish. “In the jail system, the average length of stay of all those people who are booked every day is 22 days.”
The issue of privatization of prisons in Florida was debated. There are seven currently in Florida.
Rouson recently visited the South Bay Correctional Facility in Palm Beach, which is operated by the GEO Group under contract with the Florida Department of Corrections.
“It’s a very well run system,” he said. “If they can save the state money and provide the same level of protective custody, then I think it’s OK.”
Parrish said many years ago he was offered an extremely well-paying job with Corrections Corporation of America, perhaps the most notorious private prison company in the country. He declined.
“I don’t believe in privatizing the operations of jails and prisons,” he said, attributing their cheaper costs to the fact that they don’t pay “decent retirement” and have a much higher level of turnover of staff so they’re always paying entry-level people.
There were great expectations that there would be a number of criminal justice reforms passed in the 2017 Session. It didn’t happen then, but Rouson says he remains “very optimistic about certain criminal justice reforms this year.”
“It could be as shallow as the fact that ’18 is an election year, and sometimes appropriations get through in an election year get though in an election year that wouldn’t get through in a regular year,” he said. “Sometimes bills pass because legislators are human, and they want to be able to go back home and brag that they got something through the Legislature.”
Rouson noted that conservative groups like the James Madison Institute and Right on Crime have joined the ACLU and Southern Poverty Law Center to get some of these reforms passed this year, “and I think these portend good for our Session coming up.”