Proponents of “smart justice,” who say they want to balance public safety with saving taxpayer dollars on jails and prisons, are back for another try at changing Florida’s strict sentencing policies.
On Tuesday, the Florida Smart Justice Alliance, a consortium that includes such powerful members of the business lobby as Associated Industries of Florida and the Florida Chamber of Commerce, announced its goal of finding common ground with critics and saving money as a result.
Finding common ground with Gov. Rick Scott may be at the top of their list.
“Smart justice” proponents have tried, for instance, to divert drug felons into treatment programs after they’ve served parts of their sentences. State Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff (R-Fort Lauderdale) repeatedly sponsored a measure that would have ended mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders. This year, the Senate passed it 40-0 and the House 112-4 – whereupon Scott vetoed the measure.
“Justice to victims of crime is not served when a criminal is permitted to be released early from a sentence imposed by the courts,” the governor wrote in his veto message. “This bill would permit criminals to be released after serving 50 percent of their sentences, thus creating an unwarranted exception to
the rule that inmates serve 85 percent of their imposed sentences.”
Florida Smart Justice Alliance President and CEO Mark Flynn said that Florida’s sentencing laws tightened in the 1990s after a series of grisly crimes frightened state residents and tourists.
He quoted Bogdanoff as telling a Monday forum that “people were scared to go to Miami, and we had [drug] cartels and all kinds of stuff going on. And that’s when we started doing the minimum mandatories, that’s when we started doing the 85-percent rule – to break that cycle.”
Flynn said the consortium is proposing a compromise between Bogdanoff’s bill and insistence by Scott and many law-enforcement officials on maintaining the 85-percent rule. A judge would be able to sentence a drug offender to a secure facility that also provides treatment and life-skills programs.
“They will have to serve their entire sentence,” said Flynn. “They’re not going to get out early. So you don’t violate the 85 percent rule, and we’ll have to see what the governor thinks about that version.”
Yet, many criminal justice experts say the 85-percent rule is a big part of the reason that the time Florida prisoners spend behind bars has grown more than in any other state. A June 2012 report by the Pew Center on the States, “Time Served: The High Cost, Low Return of Longer Prison Terms,” showed a 166 percent increase in the average Florida sentence between 1990 and 2009.
The increase cost Florida taxpayers $1.4 billion in 2009, according to Pew.
“America is addicted to incarceration, and Florida is one of the worst junkies,” said David Utter, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The 1995 Legislature passed the “Truth in Sentencing” law, requiring inmates to serve at least 85 percent of their time. In 1999 came “Three Strikes,” by which a third felony conviction requires a minimum sentence of 25 years to life if someone is injured or killed, and “10-20-Life,” which established mandatory minimum sentences for crimes involving firearms.
“Before the 85-percent law, people were serving 40 or 50 percent of their sentences,” said Florida Sheriffs Association spokeswoman Sarrah Carroll. “We believe that certainty (of serving 85 percent of one’s sentence) definitely has an impact on the crime rate.”
Carroll said that Florida’s sheriffs also believe that treatment
for drug offenders can be effective.
“We believe in treatment, and we believe services should be given to offenders,” she said, “but right now the Department of Corrections doesn’t have the money in their budget.”
Pew examined nonviolent offenders released in 2004, concluding that 14 percent of all offenders released in Florida could have served shorter sentences with no threat to public safety.