The Florida Bar

Florida Bar Journal

A Hard Look at Our Criminal Justice System

President's Page

Photo of Florida Bar President Michelle Suskauer

As the first former public defender to ever lead The Florida Bar, criminal justice issues have been a priority of my presidency. On October 16-17, 2018, in Tampa, we initiated the Bar’s first Criminal Justice Summit. The summit was highly thought-provoking, informative, and productive. Participants included elected state attorneys and public defenders, legislators, practitioners, sheriffs, educators, judges, participants from the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, the ACLU, the Innocence Project, the Pretrial Justice Institute, the James Madison Institute, and many more important agencies in Florida and the United States.

I thank past Bar President Hank Coxe of Jacksonville, who was a member of Florida’s 2017-2018 Constitution Revision Commission, for chairing this constructive summit and Rick Courtemanche, the Bar’s deputy general counsel, for their tireless efforts — this concept would not have become a reality without them. The steering committee included Judge Michael Andrews, Sixth Circuit; Deborah Brodsky, director, FSU Project on Accountable Justice; Nancy Daniels, public defender (ret.), Second Circuit; Judge David Denkin, Sarasota County; R.J. Larizza, Seventh Circuit state attorney; Martin McDonnell of Sarasota; Judge Jon Berkley Morgan, Ninth Circuit; Chelsea Murphy, Right on Crime; Daniel Norby, Executive Office of the Governor; Sal Nuzzo, James Madison Institute; Brian L. Tannebaum, Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers; Sandy Weinberg of Tampa; and myself. There were 160 attendees. Finally, a special thank you to steering committee member Sen. Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg) for his involvement in the summit and his leadership in our state on criminal justice issues.

Balanced panel discussions took place during the summit that provided unique opportunities for participants to share their experiences with the criminal justice system and provide solutions for issues that may be remedied by potential legislative reforms.

Two workshops focused on this topic — one on sentencing reform, and one on pretrial release. Our state’s prisons house about 96,000 inmates with a current state budget that covers the cost for 86,000. Our state’s habitual offender laws have not been meaningfully reviewed for more than two decades, and as of 2016, 63 percent of incarcerations were for nonviolent crimes, and half of new inmates had no history of violent offenses. Panelists discussed ideas on reinstating parole, reconsidering the threshold that elevates a theft from a misdemeanor to a felony, and allowing judges to deviate from minimum mandatory sentences when possible.

Juvenile Justice
Two workshops covered this topic — one on direct file of juveniles and one on juvenile sentencing. When children are exposed to adult sanctions, research shows they recidivate in higher numbers and show greater criminality. Ideally, we should hold youthful offenders accountable without sacrificing compassion. Panelists largely agreed that civil citation programs are successful, and if implemented more consistently statewide, would alleviate the pressure on the juvenile justice system. More individualized case plans could also help reduce the recidivism rate. Panelists agreed that continued communication, cooperation, and collaboration is needed between state agencies, family members, and officials tasked with supervising and interacting with juvenile offenders.

Specialty Courts
Florida’s drug, mental health, juvenile, veteran, and other specialty courts are designed to rehabilitate defendants and reduce recidivism. Panelists agreed these courts have been successful but need careful structuring, adequate and sustained funding, enhanced staffing, and experienced judges. Discussions focused on the need for a consistent review of specialty courts, both in urban and rural parts of the state to ensure best practices, and expanding these specialty courts to assist more defendants, including those charged with more serious nonviolent crimes.

Mental Health
Nationally, Florida is among the lowest ranked states for access to mental-health treatment. Our criminal justice system admits around 120,000 people with mental-health issues into our jails and prisons every year. Some ideas brought up included expanding training for local law enforcement to recognize mental-health issues; ensuring the availability of specialty courts designed to handle such issues; and providing offenders with proper treatment once incarcerated.

Offender Re-entry
Helping inmates prepare for life outside of prison, especially at the completion of a lengthy sentence, is critical in helping reduce recidivism rates. Assisting with a smooth transition back into society begins with ensuring that convicted felons are provided with certain resources. Possible solutions identified are increasing job training and removing barriers to employment, such as the mandatory withholding of driver’s licenses for unpaid fees and fines.

Conviction Integrity
A workshop covered how the state of Florida can investigate post-conviction claims of innocence. Fourth Circuit State Attorney Melissa Nelson was on hand to discuss how she started the first conviction integrity unit in the state, which is serving as a model for new units in Orlando and Tampa.

A report on the Criminal Justice Summit appears in this issue of The Florida Bar Journal . I thank Dr. Ellen Podgor, a criminal law research professor at the Stetson University College of Law, and her team of students for participating in this event, as well as producing this excellent report. Videos of the sessions will be available on the Bar’s website.

Although The Florida Bar cannot take official positions on any of these issues, we are committed to helping further these discussions. Our members are uniquely qualified to provide important perspectives and to facilitate more conversations around criminal justice reform in the future.

We will continue bringing stakeholders together in order to further define problems and identify solutions that will move Florida’s criminal justice system in a more positive direction. This is just the beginning.