Advocates of criminal justice reform in Florida hope the state legislature will address some of their top priorities in the upcoming legislative session. But a big push for structural changes to reduce the prison population are difficult because of a limited amount of money, resources and political will.
Here’s an irony. Crime in Florida is at a 45-year low. But the state’s prison population has grown from less than 27-thousand inmates in 1978 to around 100,000 people today.
Despite what some criminal justice reform advocates said has been incremental progress, the government expects to have about the same amount of inmates as it has now in six years. Reducing the inmate population while maintaining public safety is a complicated task where many groups and advocates have differing and opposite views. Lawmakers are the piñatas in the middle trying to cut costs, keep the public safe and address societal problems like addiction and mental illness.
Some people like Raymer McGuire with the ACLU of Florida, said they’ll push lawmakers to reduce the state’s prison population by doing away with some the state’s hundreds of mandatory minimum laws. Pulling a gun, firing it, and actually shooting someone during a crime can land the offender with a 10 year-to life prison sentence.
“The mandatory minimums often result in unfair sentencing where judges have no discretion, no safety valve, to look at the specific case and to judge whether or not the mandatory minimum is appropriate," he said. But Panama City State Attorney Glen Hess says prosecutors support mandated long prison sentences to keep violent criminals off the streets and protect the public.
“The legislature, several years back, saw that we had an increase in crime," he said. "They built more prisons and put mandatory sentences in effect. By taking those people who were prone to commit serious crime and placing them in the prison system for a long period of time, it takes them off the streets for the benefit of our communities.”
Lobbyist Barney Bishop heads the Smart Justice Alliance, a conservative group which advocates for criminal justice reform. He said the group has had past success in the general assembly getting an inmate reentry program for non-violent drug offenders and expanding the number of civil tickets juveniles can get before going into the criminal justice system.
Bishop said he supports legislation this session that would have police officers issue more juvenile civil tickets across the state and using diversion programs across the state. He’s also pushing a proposal to allow adults who commit a misdemeanor to also be eligible for a civil citation. Similar legislation died in the House last year.
There’s also differing opinions on whether people with addiction and mental health should be given more treatment instead of prison… or whether they’re not doing enough to stay clean. McGuire of the ACLU wants the state to end the war on marijuana. But Bishop said more research on medical cannabis needs to be done to censure safety.
“There’s going to be crime related to medical marijuana," he said. "It’s not the harmless drug that everybody says it is.”
Legislators are also expected to make Juvenile justice changes. and Public Defender Stacy Mills said Florida needs to stop allowing prosecutors to file adult charges on defendants under age 18 without a judge’s approval. But Hess said he believes youth of today are much more violent than when he first started as a prosecutor in 1979.
“All you need to do is go on Facebook and look at what these kids are posting," he said. "Pictures with guns, pictures with drug money, pictures with drugs. The intensity has increased tremendously.”
Despite those differences, advocates are optimistic lawmakers will make progress. How much progress and who will be the winners and losers remains to be seen.