A roundup of Sunday editorials from Florida’s leading newspapers:
Tampa Bay Times — Court, lawmakers must overhaul death penalty
The U.S. Supreme Court ruling last month invalidating Florida’s death penalty sentencing system gives the state an opportunity to end this outdated, arbitrary and ineffective punishment. But this is Florida, and lawmakers are tinkering with the death penalty instead of abolishing it. They at least have an obligation to ensure that any fix for death penalty sentencing clears the minimum constitutional hurdles.
The court found Florida’s death penalty sentencing process was unconstitutional because it vests final authority in a judge rather than a jury. Under state law, judges give “great weight” to a jury’s recommendation in a death penalty case. But the trial judge ultimately decides. In its 8-1 opinion, the court cited a 2002 case, Ring vs. Arizona, which established that juries and not judges shall decide the fate of defendants in capital cases. In response, the Florida Supreme Court issued an indefinite stay of the execution of Michael Ray Lambrix, which had been scheduled for Thursday, and is exploring whether the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling should apply retroactively to other cases. Simultaneously, legislators are proposing to rewrite the sentencing laws.
A House bill would require the 12 jurors to be unanimous in finding at least one aggravating factor in a capital case in order to recommend death. That change addresses the high court’s Jan. 12 ruling in Hurst vs. Florida, which faulted the state for allowing judges — not juries — to determine the facts necessary to impose a death sentence. The bill also would require the vote of at least nine jurors to recommend a sentence of death. Until the high court threw out the law, Florida was the only state that allowed juries to recommend death by a simple 7-5 majority.
Though the Supreme Court did not address unanimity, that standard as a basis for justifying a death sentence is in keeping with the court majority’s decision by putting more authority into the hands of jurors. Along that line, the Legislature should require jury recommendations for death to also be unanimous. The 9-3 requirement being proposed is a nod to prosecutors.
Bradenton Herald — State College of Florida faculty union would challenge trustees
The beatdown that the State College of Florida Board of Trustees administered to the faculty by eliminating tenure brought a swift backlash, and deservedly so.
On Jan. 26, the board voted 8-0 to quit offering continuing contracts to qualifed faculty beginning in 2016. Tenure is not automatic after so many years of service, but must be earned through a rigorous and comprehensive process.
On Feb. 3, the faculty fought back with a majority petitioning the state to allow the formation of a union, a collective bargaining unit. More than 80 out of 120 faculty members signed unionization cards, well above the state’s threshold for such a request. A certified union would force college trustees and administrators to negotiate the terms of college employment.
Thus, trustees would not be able to run roughshod over faculty as happened with a tenure decision that ignored critics. With a union, the board would be compelled to negotiate in good faith and not dictate terms.
Under Florida’s Constitution, state employees have the right to bargain collectively. Though forbidden from striking, unionized workers can pressure trustees and the administration and file grievances should circumstances allow. A state arbitrator would rule on the matter.
Over the last few years, respect for faculty declined and morale suffered greatly, one professor told the Herald’s Matt M. Johnson in his report on the unionization bid.
The Daytona Beach News-Journal —Rape crisis services on the rebound
This time two years ago, though many community leaders didn’t realize it, the only provider of rape crisis services in Volusia and Flagler counties was teetering on the brink of collapse. And in the grim months following the June 2014 closure of the Children’s Advocacy Center of Volusia and Flagler Counties, local leaders scrambled to provide victim support, forensic exams and ongoing counseling to adult victims of sexual abuse.
During that time, victims were sometimes transported out of county for exams, and shuffled through a network of volunteer mental-health professionals for trauma care and longer-term counseling services. At the time, many advocates worried that victims were falling through the cracks, or discouraged from reporting rapes because they were fearful they would be “re-traumatized” by a system in disarray.
But the community quickly rallied to meet the need. Established local providers stepped forward — and now, this area has two certified rape-crisis centers. Volusia County is covered by Stewart-Marchman Act Behavorial Health Care, which obtained its certification from the Florida Council Against Sexual Violence in November. Last month, the Family Life Center in Bunnell received its certification to serve Flagler County.
Both agencies were uniquely equipped to assist victims of sexual violence. Stewart-Marchman Act is the area’s largest behavioral health provider, and in many ways deals with the aftermath of crime and trauma. Family Life Center also serves as Flagler County’s domestic violence agency — again, with much overlap in the kinds of services its clients need. Both agencies have established relationships with law enforcement and familiarity with navigating bureaucracy that can be daunting to a traumatized victim of assault.
And both have made it their mission to provide a haven of safety and healing. Talking to The News-Journal’s Jennifer Edwards-Park, Family Life Center Executive Director Trish Giaccone described how her facility’s offices were reconfigured to provide a comforting space where forensic exams can take place — a far cry from the harsh lighting and impersonal atmosphere of some hospital emergency rooms.
The Florida Times-Union —Should women be required to register for the draft?
Two senior military leaders say that women should be required to register for the draft now that all military roles are open to them.
Though the military ended the draft in 1973, all men ages 18 to 26 living in the United States are required to register with the Selective Service in case the country needs troops to fight a war.
According to The New York Times and The Associated Press, Army Gen. Mark Milley and Marine Gen. Robert Neller said women should be included in the requirement to register.
But Navy Secretary Ray Mabus and Army Acting Secretary Patrick Murphy would only support discussing the issue.
So we asked members of our Email Group, especially veterans and women, what they think of the idea.
POLITICAL CORRECTNESS AT WORK
The generals are realists. They recognize that if women are barred from the draft it will only be a matter of time until someone will challenge it in court as a matter of discrimination; it will become a matter of law anyway.
The generals have said they would not lower standards for more grueling jobs, which will become the filter that will move women to more appropriate jobs.
This is the crazy situation political correctness leads to: require women to register for the draft; at the same time offer three months of paid maternity leave from corporate positions. And this is all in the name of equality.
Dear Lord, what have we wrought?
Florida Today – ‘Strongest bill’ to attack corruption wins at grassroots
I wrote a column Oct. 19 published in FLORIDA TODAY and other news sites including the Tallahassee Democrat, in which I told you to “buckle up.” USA Today Network news sites and columnist Matt Reed were going to reinvent crusading journalism, I wrote.
I told you about a project Reed brought to me regarding an amendment to the often-ineffective Misuse of Public Office Act. I signed on because through most of the past decade, Florida was the public corruption capital of the United States – a dubious distinction to say the least.
From my perspective, it has been a suspenseful, and alternately inspring and infuriating journey. You should know some of those who have helped.
It started in the fall of 2014 with me drafting the language, at Reed’s request, for an anti-corruption bill, which I then brought to Brevard-Seminole State Attorney Phil Archer for input. He thought it would help prosecutors charge and convict more corrupt officials.
The bill would eliminate an unusually high burden of proof in corruption cases and subject public contractors to corruption laws for the first time.
Archer started campaigning and won a 22-0 endorsement from the Florida Prosecuting Attorney’s Association.
The Gainesville Sun – Cheers and jeers
A lot of ugly and hateful rhetoric has been hurled at refugees and immigrants in recent months, including from several Republican presidential contenders.
Now some Republicans in the Florida House are seeking to sink even lower than Donald Trump, only with legislation rather than just words.
Jeer: A state House committee, for approving a bill that would allow Gov. Rick Scott to use military force to keep out refugees or other immigrants.
HB 1095 would allow the governor to declare immigrants who are from or have been near parts of the world where “invaders” live or train to be designated as “restricted people.” It would ban government employees or anyone getting any state assistance, including Medicare, from helping these immigrants unless they were born in the Western Hemisphere. The governor could also use force to keep them from entering Florida.
The House Criminal Justice Subcommittee voted 9-4 with Republicans in favor of the legislation and Democrats opposed. Rep. Clovis Watson Jr. of Alachua was among the Democrats voting against it.
Committee member Rep. Dave Kerner, D-Lake Worth, summed out the many problems with the bill well.
The Lakeland Ledger — The steady drumbeat of secrecy
It’s become an annual rite of spring. No, we refer not to the return of horsehide smacking against leather over at Tigertown, nor the migration of snowbirds back to the northern tundra, nor to the thump-thump of basketballs and squeaks of leather shoes on the hardwood at the Lakeland Center.
Rather we refer to the aggressive, naked and unrelenting assault on open government in Florida by the very people who make the laws.
In this space earlier this year we chronicled proposed bills that, through the altering of one word in current law governing the handling of public records, would permit government agencies to hide information with impunity by making optional the awarding of legal fees to citizens who are forced to sue government agencies after being wrongfully denied access to documents. Now, the First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee, an open government advocacy group, warns against the latest movement through the Legislature of additional attempts to subvert our Government in the Sunshine statutes.
One bill proposed by the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee, would prohibit law enforcement agencies from posting online mugshots of people who are arrested but not yet convicted, unless it is deemed to be vital to public safety that they do so. The bill also allows people to sue shake-down artists who offer to remove mugshots posted on Internet sites for a fee, sometimes in the range of $400 for each website.
Miami Herald — This time, put your foot down, Mr. Obama
Well into the “Republicans be damned” phase of his second term, President Obama this week touched a third rail — and lived; he visited a mosque, a move that for years he had wanted to make, but never had, likely aware of the fallout.
With less than a year left in his administration, and with the spotlight falling on the candidates vying for his comfy chair in the Oval Office, he made the first-ever stop, in Baltimore, in support of beleaguered Muslim Americans. He hardly created a news splash, but made a powerful statement.
Now, Mr. Obama likely has another controversial visit on his presidential bucket list where he can make another statement of affirmation.
It’s a trip to Cuba, just 90 miles away from South Florida. There is not a whiff of White House confirmation, but rumblings continue that he’s toying with the idea of making a historic visit, possibly in March.
This much is true: He shouldn’t represent the United States on the island without gaining some real concessions from Raúl Castro’s regime. For real this time.
In anticipation of the possible visit, which will likely make headlines around the world, Cuban dissidents have asked the president to make his visit contingent on a list of conditions.
They request that he ask that there be an “immediate cessation of repression” for those who oppose the Cuban government; that amnesty be granted to political prisoners; that the U.S. president be allowed to meet with representatives of the opposition, according to a statement from dissidents obtained by El Nuevo Herald.
Orlando Sentinel — Let school districts swap FSA for more reliable tests
For tens of thousands of public-school students in Florida, last year’s debut of the Florida Standards Assessment was a fiasco. That’s not the critics talking; that’s from a survey taken by the test’s No. 1 defender, the Florida Department of Education.
In the survey, almost 15 percent of 373,000 students who took the FSA online reported computer problems. Software glitches, a cyber-attack and a surprise system upgrade were among culprits.
Such results only strengthen the case for Florida legislators to pass a bill that would give districts the option to substitute more reliable, reputable national tests — the SAT or ACT — for the FSA. More than three-quarters of Florida’s high-school seniors take the ACT, so passage of the bill would mean those students would take fewer tests. That should be music to the ears of critics who believe too much class time is taken up by testing.
The bill from Sen. Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican, was unanimously endorsed in committee last week. It’s also backed by the Florida School Boards Association and some school districts. Last year, Superintendent Walt Griffin of Seminole County schools — an A-rated district — asked for the flexibility to swap out the FSA for other tests.
Gaetz’s Senate bill needs to be matched by a House counterpart for a good chance to become law. Any member who believes in fewer, better tests will jump at the chance to sponsor that bill.
Ocala StarBanner — Curb Florida’s specialty plates
Florida’s specialty license plates have multiplied at a pace that would make a rabbit blush.
Despite a 2008 law that supposedly put a moratorium on new specialty plates, more than 120 varieties are on the road, representing colleges, professional sports teams, nonprofits, flora and fauna. At this rate, pretty soon Aunt Edna’s Tuesday night bridge club will have its own plate.
Enough already. Not only should the state put the brakes on creating new plates, it needs to start thinning the herd.
Although allowing a mosaic of plates might make for a more challenging game of “name the state” on your next road trip, it poses a more serious problem for law enforcement. Officials say all the designs and colors can make it difficult for officers to quickly identify vehicles.
Plus, the proliferation of tags that promote political agendas — with the implicit approval of the government that issues the plates — raises thorny issues of freedom of speech. Florida issues a “Choose Life” plate, as well as “In God We Trust,” “Family Values,” “Support Homeownership for All” and others that advocate issues. No one is forced to purchase a tag with which they disagree, but the practice can put the state in the position of having to turn down messages and causes it might find too hot to handle.
Pensacola News-Journal — Florida’s affordable-housing programs need money
Add us to the list of groups and organizations asking the state Legislature to fully fund this year’s request for affordable housing.
Last week, the Senate did the right thing by allowing full funding — about $317 million — for the SHIP/Housing Trust Fund and the State Apartment Incentive Loan (SAIL) program for next year’s budget. SHIP is the State Housing Initiatives Partnership program. It funds housing programs in all 67 counties. The SAIL money can be used to rehab apartments that desperately need repair or to build new units, that house “Florida’s most vulnerable populations, such as the frail, elderly and persons with disabilities,” the Sadowski Housing Coalition said in information they provided during a visit to the News Journal Editorial Board before the legislative session began.
Last week, the coalition, a nonpartisan group of more than 30 organizations, thanked senators for their support and we join in that praise. Senators clearly recognize the need to make it easier for families to own a home.
“As we move forward this session, we ask that the House take the Senate’s position during budget negotiations and use all housing trust fund monies for housing,” Jaimie Ross, president and CEO of the Florida Housing Coalition and facilitator of the Sadowski Coalition, said in a news release.
Now, the funding must get passed by the state House, where representatives have a recommendation of just more than $141 million, less than half the Senate’s approval. What’s troubling is that although the balance of the money is earmarked for housing-related issues, it could be diverted to pet projects elsewhere. We urge state Reps. Clay Ingram, Mike Hill and Doug Broxson to follow the Senate’s leadership and make the full amount available.
After all, more affordable housing is desperately needed, especially in portions of Escambia County, one of the state’s poorest.
The Palm Beach Post — Justice for Caroline is a step for justice for all
Last week, a group of church friends held a town hall meeting in Brunswick, Ga. Their purpose is embodied in their name: Justice For Caroline Small.
Chances are, you’ve never heard of her.
She was a waitress, a mother of two girls, and a woman with mental health issues who was in and out of drug treatment programs for much of her life until she was killed by police in June of 2010. Her death was every bit as outrageous as those of Oscar Grant, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray and Tamir Rice, but has received only a fraction of the attention.
Indeed, unless you live in Georgia or North Florida, you probably don’t know her story. And you should. As told in news reports and a dash cam video, it goes like this:
A police officer responds to a call of a woman doing drugs in a parking lot. When he tells her to shut off the car, she takes off instead. A four mile, low-speed chase ensues. It ends when a police car bumps her vehicle, spinning it to a stop.
With one police car sitting nose to nose, another on her passenger side, a utility pole behind her, a ditch on her left and all four tires gone, Small has nowhere to go. Still, she shifts into reverse and then forward, banging uselessly against the utility pole and the patrol car.
Police yell at her to get out. Instead, she tries again — back against the pole, forward, bumping the car. And Sgt. Corey Sasser and Officer Todd Simpson open fire, tattooing her windshield with .45 caliber rounds.
Afterward, they discuss their marksmanship.
The Panama City News-Herald — Tricky task of dating and the budget
I’ve been following your plan, and I’ve finally gotten out of debt and feel I have control of my finances. I’m also single, and I was wondering if you have any tips for how to gracefully mention financial topics and budgeting when you’re on a date.
Well, I don’t recommend bringing it up on a first date. If I’m a guy on the initial date with a girl and the first thing out of her mouth is about finances and handling money, that’s going to be pretty strange.
Now, if the first date turns into another and another and another, then you might start talking about the deeper things in life and where you both stand. As you start talking about more serious subjects, you’ll begin to learn if there’s enough of a basis for a real relationship.
But the first date is just sort of an introduction, right? You’re both seeing if there’s any initial, mutual compatibility. Asking someone how much they make, or where they are on their debt snowball in this scenario is officially weird — even by my standards. In other words, use manners and tact. They may be old-fashioned words these days, but in most cases they work well.
South Florida Sun Sentinel – Evaluations contribute to Florida’s teacher crisis
Florida’s Common Core-based high-stakes tests — which resume Feb. 29 — are supposed to encourage and measure critical thinking. Student scores on those Florida Standards Assessments are an integral part of teacher evaluations. So it is appropriate to apply critical thinking skills to the controversies surrounding teacher ratings in Florida.
As the Sun Sentinel reported, districts evaluated 54,000 teachers across South Florida for the 2014-15 year. How many were judged to be performing poorly? Twelve in Broward County, five in Miami-Dade County and one in Palm Beach County.
It is absurd on its face to claim that only 18 teachers out of 54,000 performed poorly. The obvious problems don’t stop there. Palm Beach County gave 42 percent of its teachers the coveted “highly effective” rating. Miami-Dade deemed 34 percent of its teachers worthy of that rating. Statewide, the figure was about 37.5 percent. Those high percentages look like grade inflation.
Broward County, meanwhile, deemed just 14 percent of its teachers “highly effective.” That number, which is up from 5 percent last year after Broward changed some evaluation procedures, seems more reasonable.
An outsider interested in valid ratings would suggest that Palm Beach and Miami-Dade should alter their systems to bring the percentages more in line with Broward’s. Further, all three South Florida districts clearly should do more to root out bad teachers.
The Tallahassee Democrat – School district, law enforcement response to threats was prudent
Local school and law-enforcement officials responded quickly and correctly to the threats of violence galloping around social media last week, when somebody posted some Sunday night notes saying a student with a gun — and maybe three accomplices — was going to shoot students at four Tallahassee schools.
It turned out to be somebody’s idea of a stupid prank, although there was no way of knowing that at the time. School Superintendent Jackie Pons, Sheriff Mike Wood and others who hastily huddled Sunday night acted prudently by increasing law-enforcement presence at the four affected schools — Lincoln, Godby and Rickards high schools and Cobb Middle School — and allowing excused absences for students who stayed home Monday.
There was no way of stifling the rumor, which was flashed from screen to screen via Instagram, Facebook and other modern media. Students and parents shared the information rapidly and, by the time school buses started rolling in the morning, most students and school employees probably knew of the threat.
Schools were deluged with phone calls from parents wanting to know what to do and, despite the decision to grant excused absences, administrators did not advise families either way.
Making that kind of threat is a felony. Unfortunately, the sheriff said it’s doubtful anyone will be apprehended, because the messages were relayed mainly by screen-capture pictures of the menacing measure. It’s certainly not illegal to say, via any media, that you’ve received a threat — or to quote the message or post an image of the screen shot. Like this newspaper, and broadcasters who covered the story, students and parents sharing the message were informing people of the event, not trying to frighten anyone.
The Tampa Tribune — Collaring animal abuse
Hillsborough County residents have seen some horrific cases of animal abuse in recent years.
Last year, two men who raised fighting dogs asked two teens to get rid of a female pit bull mix that was too gentle to fight. The teens shot the dog and left her for dead tied on railroad tracks. Fortunately, the dog, which police named Cabela, survived and was nursed back to health.
A few years ago, a pit bull mix was shot twice and buried alive at a vacant home, but remarkably was rescued by county Pet Resources workers.
Unfortunately, such cases of animal cruelty are not unusual, and often don’t have such happy outcomes. It is not uncommon for officers to find animals beaten or starved.
So Hillsborough County commissioners are wise to want to establish an animal abuse registry that should serve at least two functions: help deter the crime, and help Pet Resources and law enforcement officials — as well as the public — ensure that offenders don’t repeat their crimes.
The commission voted 5-1 Wednesday to have attorneys draw up an ordinance for a registry that would require people convicted of animal abuse or neglect to sign or be fined.
Since people convicted of animal abuse are prevented from owning animals, the list would make it easier for law enforcement officials, and the public, to see that offenders are complying with the restriction.
Nobody would want their name on such a public list, so the registry should serve as a deterrent. It also would help law enforcement keep tabs on those whose sadistic acts against animals may lead to even graver crimes.
As veterinarian Betsy Coville pointed out to commissioners, serial killers often have a history of torturing and killing animals.
The Hillsborough County State’s Attorney’s Office, which has been honored for its aggressive prosecution of animal abusers, handles about 200 misdemeanor animal cruelty cases and 30 felony cases a year.