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Task force would seek to remake Florida’s criminal justice system

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Florida’s state lawmakers increasingly are embracing criminal justice reform policies that break with the state’s “tough on crime” past. But a sea change could be in the works.

But a sea change could be in the works.

Last year, Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, and the GOP-controlled legislature approved one of the most far-reaching civil asset forfeiture reforms in the country, repealed a 10-20-life mandatory minimum sentencing law, and expanded health care delivery for mentally ill inmates. Mental health advocates say as much as 40 percent of Florida’s prison population needs treatment.

Dozens of reform-related bills already have been filed ahead this year’s state legislative session.

Now, it’s time to go big.

Seizing on momentum, Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg wants to remake the entire system.

“If you look around the country, many other states are leading on criminal justice reform. It’s a wave that’s just starting to hit Florida,” Brandes told Watchdog.org.

“It’s time to look at a holistic view about how to transform the system,” he said.

Brandes is seeking legislative approval to form a task force to conduct a comprehensive review of Florida’s criminal justice, court and corrections systems.

Ultimately, the task force would submit a report with findings, conclusions and recommendations to be molded into legislation for the 2018 state session.

Overhauling state prisons may be the first priority.

“We have prisons that are in a kind of crisis mode right now. We’re having a tough time hiring guards. Contraband rates are through the roof. Our education of prisoners is at rock bottom, and recidivism is a struggle for the state,” Brandes said.

Membership must reflect the racial, gender, geographic and economic diversity of the state, as well as the diversity and demographics of the state’s prison population, according to the proposal. The 28-member group would include members of the House and Senate, judges, academics, faith leaders, victims’ advocates, public defenders, law enforcement officials and even prison inmates in good standing.

Brandes said he has been in contact with groups such as the Crime and Justice Institute and Pew Research Center to discuss how to approach the issue and what possible outcomes might look like.

The task force would use a data-driven approach to arrive at sentencing and corrections recommendations for the purpose of:

— Reducing the state prison population.

— Decreasing spending by focusing on serious offenses and violent criminals.

— Holding offenders accountable through research-based supervision and sentencing practices.

— Reinvesting savings into strategies known to decrease recidivism, including reentry outcomes.

“We think states like Texas are thought leaders in criminal justice reform. It’s time for Florida to follow Texas’s lead on the criminal justice issue and to get serious about criminal justice reform,” Brandes said.

Florida is often compared to Texas both economically and demographically. In 2007, Texas instituted a nationally recognized reform package, and has added to it ever since.

When asked to describe possible obstacles, Brandes said, “Most arguments in the Legislature are fortress versus frontier arguments. I’m, almost to a fault, with the frontiers.”

According to the proposal, task force members would receive no taxpayer compensation for their work.

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