While Florida’s population has tripled since 1970, the state’s prison population has grown by 1,000 percent. A new coalition of groups is lobbying the legislature to do something about that discrepancy.
The Florida Campaign for Criminal Justice Reform launched on Monday, one day ahead of the state’s annual legislative session. In a statement, the group said it’s focusing on rolling back decades of failed “tough-on-crime” policies that have contributed to the explosion in the number of inmates.
“Large prison populations are not an appropriate barometer for effective criminal justice,” said Christian Camara, Southeast regional director of the Washington, D.C.-based R Street Institute, a coalition member.
“Instead, they are oftentimes a symptom of a broken system that imposes a huge burden on taxpayers. Florida should focus on reducing recidivism by prioritizing criminal justice spending to help rehabilitate and restore offenders’ lives while reserving tough penalties against violent criminals,” Camara said.
Florida’s state prison system houses nearly 100,000 inmates at a cost of $2.3 billion annually.
About one out of every 104 Floridians is behind bars when including local jail populations, and one out of 54 residents is under some kind of supervision by the criminal justice system, the campaign says.
“Florida’s antiquated laws put too many people behind bars for too long,” said Scott McCoy, senior policy counsel for the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, noted that criminal justice reform increasingly has become an area of bipartisan agreement.
“Legislators should take notice when public interest organizations representing an extraordinarily broad ideological spectrum come together to urge long-overdue reforms in our criminal justice system,” Simon said.
Simon singled out Florida’s use of mandatory minimum laws as a policy ripe for change.
“Our state’s habit of imposing mandatory minimum sentences has loaded up our prisons in a way that threatens the safety of inmates as well as correction officers,” he said.
The coalition is pushing a number bills, many of which have been filed by Republicans – a good sign since the GOP dominates the Florida Legislature. The bills include:
— Criminal Justice Task Force: The proposal would create a diverse group of public officials and stakeholders for the purpose of developing recommendations to overhaul the entire criminal justice system.
— Direct File: Florida puts more juveniles into adult prisons than any other state in the country. A bill that would reduce the number of minors directly filed into adult courts will be considered by state lawmakers during the session, but has been met with early opposition.
— Juvenile Civil Citations: Legislators will debate a measure to expand pre-arrest, youth diversion programs for those younger than 18 who commit common non-violent crimes, such as trespassing, and have no criminal history. Youth civil citations are not applied evenly throughout the state, even though studies have shown they lead to more favorable long-term outcomes than arrests.
— Adult Civil Citations: Law enforcement officers could be given the discretion to issue civil citations to adults who commit non-violent, low-level misdemeanors rather than arresting them.
— Elderly Release: Known as compassion release, older, sicker and non-threatening inmates over age 65 soon could participate in conditional early release programs.
— Sentencing and Offense Parameters: Several bills could change how certain property crimes, driving-related offenses and possession of controlled substances violations would be charged. Another measure would allow judges to depart from mandatory minimum sentencing laws for certain non-violent crimes and drug possession offenses.
Composed of more than a dozen organizations, the Florida Campaign for Criminal Justice Reform also has launched a public education website offering more information about its legislative priorities.
Campaign members, faith leaders, criminal justice experts, formerly incarcerated persons and law enforcement experts are scheduled to visit the Florida Capitol on Thursday to lobby lawmakers.