A round-up of Sunday editorials from Florida’s leading newspapers:
Tampa Bay Times — Justice for federal offenders
The U.S. Justice Department is courageously moving forward with plans for the early release of prisoners who are serving sentences that don’t fit their crimes. In the coming weeks, the department plans to free 6,000 federal inmates. This action is long overdue and should be accompanied by robust efforts to ensure ex-offenders’ successful reintegration into society.
Justice Department officials confirmed last week that they are set to release 6,001 federal inmates from prisons across the country. The releases, which will be staggered from Oct. 30 to Nov. 2, are part of a multiyear Obama administration effort to reduce the federal prison population by letting out inmates who committed nonviolent crimes and received unjustly harsh sentences. Foreign citizens, who will be immediately deported, make up 1,870 of the inmates scheduled for release, according to the Washington Post. Of the remaining inmates, about two-thirds will go to halfway houses or home confinement before being eligible for supervised release. Florida will get 295 ex-offenders, the second-largest group headed to a single state, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Texas will lead the nation, receiving 578 former inmates.
The effort, the largest one-time release of federal prisoners, follows action by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which last year wisely reduced potential punishments for drug offenders and made the changes retroactive. The change in sentencing guidelines could result in the eventual release of 46,000 of the country’s 100,000 federal drug offenders, the Post reported. Another 8,550 federal inmates will be eligible for release in the next year.
In hindsight, the country’s war on drugs in the 1980s and 1990s was well intended but heavy-handed and resulted in the creation of mandatory minimum sentences that often far outweighed the crimes committed. Decades later, federal prisons are bulging with inmates who are serving outsized sentences for nonviolent drug crimes.
Taxpayers are paying the price. The cost of incarceration makes up about one-third of the Justice Department’s $27 billion budget. And there’s the incalculable cost of the absence of the offenders — many of them African-American men — from society. Most of the inmates considered for early release have already served an average of 8½ years of their 10½-year sentences. Others have served decades. Some had life sentences. Each has been appropriately punished and earned the opportunity for redemption.
The Bradenton Herald — Nobel Peace Prize highlights a rare ray of democracy
This year’s Nobel Peace Prize was a surprise even to the recipients, a little-known group of activists who brokered a political transition in Tunisia. It was also an inspired choice.
The Arab Spring has been so disappointing — in Egypt, in Libya, in Yemen — that Tunisia has been largely forgotten, making headlines only when terrorists kill European vacationers. Yet the Arab Spring’s hope for a more tolerant and democratic Middle East is most alive in Tunisia, where the movement began more than four years ago.
In Tunisia, as in Egypt, the strongest political force to emerge after the revolution was an Islamist group called Ennahda. Ennahda won elections, formed a government and sought to Islamize the nation. By 2013, the country seemed poised to slide in chaos.
After two opposition leaders were killed, tens of thousands took to the streets, clashing with police.
This is when the unlikely alliance known as the National Dialogue Quartet formed. The quartet — Tunisia’s main labor union, its main employers group, its lawyers’ association and the Tunisian Human Rights League — mediated between the main political blocs, headed by Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes, a party formed by stalwarts from the era of dictatorship. They agreed on a plan for a transitional government and elections, which Nidaa Tounes won last year.
In the new unity government, Ennahda has a cabinet minister.
It is pointless to speculate why something similar didn’t happen in Libya or Egypt; Tunisia has always been different. Even under the former dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the country had stronger labor unions and other secular civic organizations. It’s also pointless to observe that Tunisia’s government, with its elements of both the old regime and the Islamist one, is not the kind of reformist democracy Westerners might prefer.
The Daytona Beach News-Journal — Flagler students win with technology
Most of today’s students are used to firing up their computers when they are struggling with homework — Facetiming or emailing with friends, or hitting the Internet. But Flagler County has taken that a step further — setting up a tutoring program where students can reach out, electronically, to teachers in four core subjects.
It’s a smart program, one that’s paying off for students — and a model that Volusia County is thinking of emulating. Students can ask questions they may not have thought of, or speak up if they’re too shy to do so in class. Sometimes, having a different teacher explain a difficult concept can trigger understanding. Some students have gone on to form their own online study groups, The News-Journal’s Shaun Ryan reported.
Flagler’s efforts are focused on four high school classes: algebra I and II, biology and geometry. And they’re showing remarkable success. Algebra teacher Jim Gambone told Ryan that he had 12 struggling students participate in the tutoring program the first year it was offered; of those, 11 passed the end-of-course exam on the first try and the 12th missed passing by only one point — and passed on the next attempt.
Programs like this would have been almost unimaginable even 15 years ago. In 2000, only half of American homes had Internet access, and most of those were relying on dial-up modems. Today, the U.S. Census reports that 79 percent of households have broadband Internet capability, and more than 88 percent have at least one computer in the home. Both numbers are even higher for households with children under the age of 18.
But they’re not 100 percent. And great programs like the online tutoring sessions don’t offer much help to students who lack the means to access them.
The Florida Times-Union — As our citizens get older, our city can get better
Making Jacksonville a community that’s more age-friendly for aging residents is simply about making Jacksonville better for everyone.
That’s the clear message to take from “Re-Think Aging,” the extensive, much-awaited study by the Jacksonville Community Council Inc. on how Northeast Florida can aggressively and proactively address the ever-growing rise in our region’s aging population.
The study, the result of six months of research and discussion, offers plenty of constructive recommendations and observations.
Key partners were AARP Jacksonville and various other stakeholders and experts on aging.
But this passage in the report is particularly trenchant and compelling: “The (study) committee realized that its work is a community initiative to improve livability for all, not an aging initiative. … The facts, conclusions and recommendations in this report are a citizen-informed report for making Northeast Florida a good place to grow up and grow old.”
Aging should be viewed as an opportunity to benefit all citizens within our community.
Florida Today – Fixes for schools’ testing, accountability
The education bureaucracy is vast and complex with edicts and funding coming from various levels.
In Florida, we not only assess the students, we use scores for evaluating the teachers and grading schools. That’s a lot resting on one test — a flawed one at that.
County school districts administer the tests and generate much of the education funding through locally assessed property taxes.
At the school level, our principals jump through the hoops, and, unfortunately, our professional teachers are micromanaged with intense pressure to teach to the high-stakes test.
This year, the untested computer-based Florida Standards Assessments replaced the FCAT. The roll out was marred by technical glitches and what might have been a cyberattack.
Several county school boards considered opting out of the testing and accountability but relented. Parents from across the state joined Opt Out movements to address what they believe to be a meaningless retention and remediation process based on a flawed test.
Anecdotally, requests for information on opting out are increasing. While school districts are instructed not to encourage or suggest opting out, many have posted a written answer to the increasing inquiries.
State Rep. Marlene O’Toole, chairwoman of the House Education Committee, ruffled some feathers recently.
The Gainesville Sun – Cheers and jeers
Smoky bars are an unwelcome blast from the past.
Smoking sections are long gone from Florida restaurants, but bars that don’t serve food as a big part of their business are still allowed to let customers light up.
As smoking rates decline to historic lows, even those bars are finding that smoking bans can be good for business. More importantly, smoking bans protect patrons as well as employees from the dangers of secondhand smoke
Cheer: Durty Nelly’s Irish pub in Gainesville, for going smoke free. After 21 years in business, the bar last week banned smoking inside its premises.
Thirty states require both bars and restaurants to be 100 percent smoke free while 16 states still permit smoking in those establishments, according to data compiled by Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights.
Florida is one of four states that bans smoking in restaurants while allowing it in some bars. In Florida, bars that derive no more than 10 percent of their gross revenue from on-premises food sales can still allow smoking.
Durty Nelly’s decision comes as the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2811 in Gainesville is also considering banning smoking inside its walls. Among the downtown bars, Lillian’s Music Store is the last bastion of indoor smoking. We hope they both follow Durty Nelly’s example.
Jeer: State Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, and state Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, for introducing companion bills that bolster the state’s Stand Your Ground laws.
The Lakeland Ledger — Recess is more than a break from learning
Parents with children in the public school system seem to have no end of things to complain or worry about. For example, mentioning Common Core standards and the need to comply with them could start an argument — just ask Jeb Bush. Many are beyond fed up with the state’s unyielding testing regimen. Doubts linger about whether Florida’s curriculum is adequately preparing students for a profitable future. The Legislature always wants to arm someone on campuses.
This week, the Polk County School Board heard another gripe. A group of parents, led by Amanda Lipham, petitioned the board to make recess mandatory for all Polk students in kindergarten through fifth grade. Lipham needed just a week or so to compile almost 2,200 signatures on a change.org petition supporting a proposal for 20 minutes of daily recess in public schools. Her cause also enlisted more than 600 people who “liked” a Facebook page called “Bring Back Daily Recess!”
Clearly, many local parents are concerned about their children receiving a well-rounded education, one that develops not just their minds but their bodies. And what they seek is separate and distinct from the 150 minutes a week of mandatory physical education classes — which is a testable subject under the Florida Standards Assessment exam, and which some skeptics may suggest ought to be sufficient.
Rather, what Lipham and the others hope the School Board will provide their children is a momentary break from a classroom environment that for too long in Polk County and throughout Florida has been structured toward taking a year-end standardized test that not only determines the child’s future, but that of his or her teacher and school.
Anecdotal evidence indicates Lipham and her backers are not alone.
The Miami Herald — When you gotta go, you gotta go, guys
It’s been a stunning week of housecleaning in the world of South Florida sports: Miami Dolphins “nice guy” head coach Joe Philbin was canned. Miami Marlins general manager Dan Jennings was shown the door. And on Thursday, the Dolphins fired defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle.
And there may be more departures.
The bloodbath was justified — just ask frustrated loyal fans.
The fired were instrumental cogs in their teams’ bad performance. How could they not be?
In the case of the Dolphins, maybe owner Stephen Ross should have listened sooner to South Florida fans before finding himself headed deep into another dismal season with an ineffective coach, especially amid the hoopla under way as the team celebrates its 50thanniversary. To assuage fans, Mr. Ross spent millions to renovate Sun Life Stadium only to have his team stink up the place with uninspired football and a 1-3 record.
And after the team’s embarrassing showing Sunday in London, of all places, what was there to celebrate?
Now, fans can root for a team rebirth, a second chance. That brings people together.
At least, they can say Mr. Ross is doing something to avert another 12 miserable games. That’s action, overdue perhaps, but hey . . .
Mr. Ross’ obvious fondness for his head coach blinded him. Miami Herald sports columnist Armando Salguero blamed Mr. Ross’ cluelessness on the fact that he is an absentee owner who flies down for games.
Mr. Philbin clearly is an honorable man, one whom Mr. Ross trusted.
But after three flat seasons with Mr. Philbin at the helm, the billionaire owner finally saw the light. Maybe watching his team make seven unsuccessful attempts to score from the red zone against the New York Jets finally did it.
Better late than never.
The Orlando Sentinel — Judge betrayed justice by jailing abuse victim
What warped version of justice demands that a domestic-violence victim go to jail because she’s too traumatized to testify against her attacker?
It’s a good question for Seminole County Judge Jerri Collins.
In a contempt-of-court hearing this summer whose details were widely reported this week, Collins sentenced the victim to three days behind bars for not attending a trial to testify against her assailant. The judge, to compound her cruelty, also publicly excoriated the victim and scorned her tearful apology.
“Your Honor, I’m very sorry for not attending …” the victim sobbed. “I’ve been dealing with depression and a lot personal anxiety since this happened …”
“You think you’re going to have anxiety now,” the judge retorted. “You haven’t even seen anxiety.”
The rules of conduct that govern Florida’s judges require them to be “patient, dignified and courteous to litigants, jurors, witnesses, lawyers and others” in their courtrooms. Collins fell woefully short of that standard.
The victim had been summoned by a court order to testify, and Collins had seated a jury. The office of Seminole-Brevard State Attorney Phil Archer, who contributed to this miscarriage of justice, asked for the contempt-of-court hearing against the victim, accusing her of trying to “thwart the court process by refusing to cooperate.”
However, as the Sentinel reported, the victim expressed reservations about testifying against her attacker a month before the trial, and the week before jury selection said she didn’t want to have anything to do with the case. If prosecutors had been paying attention, and were worried about wasting court resources, they could have dropped the charges. Their determination to prosecute the attacker, who was a repeat offender, was laudable — until it reached the point of punishing the victim.
The Ocala StarBanner — Stop the madness
Nearly two decades ago, a mass shooting shocked Australia into action.
On April 28, 1996, a gunman shot to death 35 people and wounded 23 more at a tourist resort in Tasmania. It took just a dozen days before Australia’s government, led by conservative Prime Minister John Howard, announced a bipartisan deal to enact sweeping gun-control laws.
The laws produced results. A study by Australian researchers found firearm homicides dropped 59 percent and firearm suicides dropped 65 percent in the decade after the laws were enacted. As Slate.com reported, robberies involving guns also fell and Australia hasn’t seen a mass shooting since that time.
The laws included measures that likely wouldn’t pass constitutional muster in the United States, such as bans on some guns and mandatory buy-back programs. But the point is other countries have responded to mass shootings by summoning the courage to challenge the status quo.
At this point, it seems like wasted energy to expect the United States to act just as rationally. In fact, we seem headed in the opposite direction. After a gunman fatally shot nine people and injured nine others last week at an Oregon community college, some have suggested more guns are the solution to stopping such incidents from occurring.
The Pensacola News-Journal — Pick a pumpkin for art
Take a cue from Pensacola’s great storyteller laureate, Troy Moon, and go pick a pumpkin.
Visit the ninth annual First City Art Center Pumpkin Patch Friday and Saturdaywhere you can take your pick of this year’s crop of more than 2,000 artfully created pumpkins.
Like to support the arts? It’s the perfect place to do it. As Moon reported, “the event is the biggest fundraiser for the FCAC. Last year’s event brought in more than $45,000 for the nonprofit art organization.”
Moon said the glass and ceramic pumpkins vary from “baseball-sized pumpkins to pumpkin-sized pumpkins and range in price from about $15 to more than $100.” The collectible and affordable art pieces range from whimsical to graceful.
Aside from fundraising, the event is a wonderful, testament to the inspirational, aesthetics of North America’s ancient, native squash cultivar. Yes, pumpkins are a symbol of the season. But ask any 5-year-old, there’s something simply magical about the shape of these fruit. They’re inherently sculptural. Like our own fingerprints, no two are the same. Variations and imperfections only make a carefully selected pumpkin more perfect.
The forms are fascinating and the possibilities are endless and that’s the glory of the pumpkin hunt. So you can imagine how cool the tradition becomes when First City’s gonzo band of artists creates a patch out of glass, clay, fire and glaze.
The preview party is 6 to 8 p.m. Friday. Admission is $25 which gets you food, drink, musical entertainment and first perusal and picking rights to the entire patch. You can even find a custom-crafted pumpkin from the PNJ’s master photographer and First City pottery instructor, Ben Twingley. And yes, Twingley has confirmed that there will be beer.
On Saturday, the Pumpkin Patch opens free to the public from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
It’s going to be a great weekend to be in Pensacola. The weather is right. Our famous Greek Festival will be humming on Garden Street. Everything is perfect for an afternoon downtown. The First City Art Center is located at 1060 N. Guillemard St. Stop by and pick up a pumpkin.
The Palm Beach Post — Why evangelicals choose Trump
Among the more bizarre developments of the campaign for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination is Donald Trump’s apparent popularity among evangelicals. Several polls show Trump garnering a plurality — though not a majority — of evangelical votes.
Pundits, religious and otherwise, have been shaking their heads about this. Some evangelicals claim the polling is faulty — because it has to be! Devoted Christians, the thinking goes, shouldn’t embrace a thrice-wed blustery billionaire who, until very recently, supported abortion rights. How, after all, can Trump’s race-baiting rhetoric about immigration be reconciled with biblical injunctions to welcome the stranger?
In one of the more amusing commentaries, Russell Moore, of the Southern Baptist Convention, claimed that evangelicals had suddenly abandoned biblical values in their fondness for Trump. “To back Mr. Trump,” Moore wrote in The New York Times, “these voters must repudiate everything they believe.”
Moore’s lament that evangelicals have forsaken “the conservation of moral principles and a just society” in their love affair with Trump may be good theater, but it’s colossally bad history. The evangelical repudiation of the faith for a mess of political pottage is not a recent phenomenon. It can be traced at least as far back as the 1980 presidential election, when evangelicals deserted Jimmy Carter, one of their own, for Ronald Reagan.
Whereas Carter advocated racial and sexual equality, cornerstones of a “just society” and articles of faith for 19th-century evangelicals, Reagan opposed the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and the proposed Equal Rights Amendment. Reagan opened his 1980 general election campaign in, of all places, Philadelphia, Miss., the site of the brutal slayings of three civil rights workers by the Ku Klux Klan 16 summers earlier. In his speech at the Neshoba County Fair on Aug. 3, Reagan proclaimed his support for “states’ rights,” coded language employed by a generation of Southern segregationists.
The Panama City News-Herald — Putin shows up Obama again
After a nice, peaceful, hope-filled week when Pope Francis visited the United States, we go back to the realities of the world. Catholics cheered, smiled and thoroughly enjoyed the pontiff’s visit. It was the most fun they were allowed to have without having to ask forgiveness at their next confession.
The pope’s message of peace was followed by an attempt at diplomacy by Vladimir Putin. When Putin visited the U.N., he opened his speech with “My fellow future Russians.”
He actually made sense in his speech, and followed it with a thoughtful sit-down interview with Scott Pelly of “60 Minutes.” It was the most penetrating interview Putin had ever had with a man not hog-tied to a chair.
He also visited with the pope this year. It was the first time Putin was not carrying a handgun for protection and a pope was.
Putin met with our feckless “world leader,” President Obama, for 90 minutes last week. Obama was shocked to find out afterward that Russia began bombing ISIS targets in Syria, supposedly in support of ally al-Assad.
No one is sure what Obama is doing in Syria. Ever since he engaged in faux bravado by saying that if al-Assad used chemical weapons against his people it would be a “red line,” – and then did nothing when Assad gassed thousands — he has no credibility in the area. 250,000 deaths and countless refugees flooding into Europe later, the world views the Obama administration as weak, ambiguous and unreliable. Putin sees that, and fills the void.
Putin told Obama he would commence bombing and told him to stay away. I think we know who rules the playground here. Putin knocked out the ISIS/terrorist command center in Syria first thing. Where Obama pussy-foots around, Putin gets it done.
Under Obama, Kerry and Hillary Clinton, we are losing allies and friendly countries in the Middle East at a record pace. Should we lose two more countries, we will top the record held by the Ottoman Empire — an empire, like ours, apparently led by rulers just putting their feet up and watching.
The South Florida Sun Sentinel – Florida panther still needs protection
Florida deserves credit for bringing the panther back from near extinction. But the work is hardly completed.
Panthers are still threatened by record roadway deaths, illegal hunting and continued loss of natural habitat. For those reasons, the panther still needs strong state and federal protections to survive long-term.
That’s why those who care about protecting panthers were concerned when the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the agency leading the Florida effort, announced months ago it was revising its panther population restoration policies.
What the commissioners came up with last month sounds good on paper, but there are still plenty of reasons to be worried that panther protections could be weakened.
The new FWC position paper rightly calls for directing limited resources and staff toward keeping the core population thriving, and pushing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Commission to step up efforts to establish new populations in other areas and states. There also is a greater emphasis on minimizing human-panther conflicts; restoring degraded panther habitat on public lands, such as the Everglades; and working with the Florida Department of Transportation to try to reduce panther deaths on roads.
But by the time the commission approved the new policy, it had heard testimony on everything from spreading panther populations throughout the state, to better protecting livestock and pets from panthers, to asking the federal commission to lower the population numbers needed to remove the panther from federal protection.
The commission now says it never seriously considered acting to remove panthers from the endangered species list. But the process got ugly.
The Tampa Bay Times reported that FWC Executive Director Nick Wiley penned an early draft of the new policy almost exclusively with the help of an Immokalee ranch owner who has lost cattle and cash to panthers. Liesa Priddy, also a commission member, pushed for protecting humans and livestock in the heart of panther country south of the Caloosahatchee River and Lake Okeechobee, which may not be a bad idea. What was a bad idea was allowing Priddy to take such a huge role in writing the policy without input from commission biologists.
The Tallahassee Democrat – Fear and loathing in the Big Bend
People were terrified, with good reason.
America had been attacked without provocation or warning. Thousands of innocent people were killed. Government leaders from the White House to small town civil-defense offices were telling people to prepare for a long, bitter struggle.
The enemy was known — some were hiding among us — and they were not like us in their appearance, accents, sometimes even their clothes. The attackers were fanatically devoted to their violent world view, with a moral certainty that their cause was divinely ordained.
So the government rounded up thousands of citizens of Japanese descent on the West Coast and shipped them off to camps for the duration of World War II. If any good came out of that blot on our history, it was the lesson that we don’t do that in America.
Education and communication over the past 75 years have made citizens far more sophisticated, changing our concept of civil liberties. But fear can still make people less tolerant, especially of people who are “not like us.”
It hasn’t been as bad as the wartime internment of Japanese citizens, but we’ve had spasms of intolerance in times of perceived national peril. Lives and careers were ruined in the McCarthy era witch hunts of the 1950s and Florida’s own rampage by the Charley Johns Committee, which hounded supposed communists, homosexuals and civil rights activists a half-century ago.
Fear of foreign cultures or religions is sometimes understandable. But acting on that fear is still inexcusable – and usually unconstitutional.
We saw it recently when Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson said no Muslim should be president. He walked that back a bit, saying he meant no one who believes in secular legal doctrines should be president.
The Tampa Tribune — Chaos in the House
It appears the Republican Congress has descended into chaos, first with Speaker John Boehner announcing his resignation and now the leading candidate to replace him, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, dropping out of the race.
The vote scheduled to nominate Boehner’s replacement has been delayed. McCarthy, already considered insufficiently rigid by the tea party faction of his party, undermined his chances when he indicated Congress’ Benghazi investigation was aimed at politically undermining Hillary Clinton.
Head counts showed he did not have enough votes to win the job, and McCarthy decided against a desperate campaign to change minds, which was probably best for his party.
Although all this makes the GOP Congress look dysfunctional, the present confusion may do little lasting harm if members rally behind a principled leader who can restore Congress’ focus to governing, not government shutdown brinkmanship.
Orlando Rep. Daniel Webster, who is seeking the speaker’s post, merits at least scrutiny for that role.
The former Florida House speaker — the first Republican Speaker in 122 years — was an able leader in Tallahassee, a staunch conservative, but one who did not run roughshod over opponents. He was elected to Congress in 2010.
Webster says he would try to give all congressional members more freedom to advance legislation that is important to their constituents.