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From arrest to reentry, Bar’s Criminal Justice Summit seeks solutions

Senior Editor Regular News

Florida’s criminal justice system is like “a firefighter coming up to a house where every room is on fire,” according to Sen. Jeff Brandes. R-St. Petersburg, “and figuring out where to start.”

Michelle Suskauer Brandes, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice, serves on the Criminal Justice Committee, and has been pushing for prison and sentencing reform, was speaking at the wrap up session of the Bar’s Criminal Justice Summit.

The summit was the idea of Bar President Michelle Suskauer who convened it October 16-17 in Tampa as a venue for hashing out problems for a system that has a high incarceration rate, high recidivism, little leeway in sentencing guidelines, and not enough money.

Getting to Solutions
“I thought it would be really interesting to get folks sitting down in the same room who maybe haven’t done that before and are coming at these issues from different perspectives,” Suskauer said. “But the more I spoke with people, it seems to me that we have so much more in common as we work to find solutions.”

Former Bar President Hank Coxe, picked by Suskauer to chair the summit, said the event was designed to share ideas, not tout or praise any particular office’s or agency’s policies or programs.

Sen. Jeff Brandes “The purpose of this is not to surrender your agenda, but to listen to what other people have to say. . . and strike a balance,” he said. “And perhaps in the area of human affairs, things can be improved.”

Chief Justice Charles Canady said the participants had to keep in mind the “multi-faceted” purposes of the criminal justice system, including punishment, deterrence, restitution, and rehabilitation.

Crime control is another goal “and you cannot ever think of crime control without thinking of due process,” Canady said. “It has to be done in a way that is consistent with due process for the accused.”

It must also be seen as fair to everyone involved, he said.

By the Numbers
After a day and a half of breakout sessions addressing everything from sentencing reform to inmate reentry into society to statistics on crime rates and juvenile justice, Brandes joined Suskauer and Coxe on stage to discuss what comes next.

Brandes was the firefighter who brought cold water, citing a stream of dismal statistics:

• The state has a prison population of around 96,000, but has provided funding for only about 86,000.

• The prison system is short 2,000 guards and is unlikely to close that gap because the dangerous work entails long hours and low pay.

• The system doesn’t have a lot of money for rehabilitation and reentry programs and had to cut those by $40 million after losing a lawsuit over the treatment of inmates with hepatitis C. Rising mental health costs took another $40 million.

• The prison system will need an extra $200 million next year just to maintain what it has and there’s little appetite in the Legislature for appropriating that money.

• The Legislature is reluctant to spend more money on criminal justice, raise taxes to spend more money, or do sentencing reform, which lawmakers fear could open them to charges of being soft on crime.

Reduce Pressure
But if there is a chink in that gloomy picture, it’s that the lack of funding may force the Legislature to do something to lessen pressure on the system.

One alternative Brandes cited was changing the definition in state laws requiring inmates to serve 85 percent of their sentences. Expanding that to include time served in halfway houses or at home with ankle monitors could reduce prison populations and save money for other programs, he said.

“Is there any appetite in Florida to increases taxes to pay for this. . . ?” Coxe asked Brandes.

“The answer is no,” Brandes replied.

“Then the next question is where does the money come from?” Coxe continued.

“In the short term you have to focus on policy recommendations that. . . reduce pressure on the prison system. There are two choices here. You can put a brick on it and sit on it or let some people out, and that means focusing on diversions, focusing on transitions, and looking at the 85 percent law and negotiating what that means,” Brandes said. “We have to use technology, we have to redefine some of these questions, but we ultimately have to take pressure off the system. We have to face the policy behind it first. We have to get down from 96,000 inmates. We have to get down to something like 86,000, and then you have to focus on diversion and transition to keep people out.”

Referring to the recommendations and conversations that occurred over the day and a half summit, as well as Brandes’ observations about the difficulty in changing policies, 10th Circuit Judge John Stargel offered a football analogy: “Go for the first down, not a touchdown.”

Brandes agreed, saying, “It’s an incremental game.”

Court Funding
It’s also a game with huge stakes for the third branch of government.

“You also have to properly fund the judiciary,” Suskauer said. “Because the judiciary is not adequately funded. It’s underfunded and we all expect [the courts] to do their job and have the technology they need to keep our communities safe. . . and make sure justice is served. That’s a constant battle, as well.”

That includes the inability of state attorneys and public defenders to retain staff because of low salaries, Suskauer added.

Brandes explained that in the Legislature, one “piece of the pie” is allocated to the entire justice system and that must be divided up between corrections, law enforcement, the courts, state attorneys and public defenders, court clerks, and related agencies.

Whatever the difficulties in improving the criminal justice system, summit participants seemed in agreement that it was a good first step in defining problems and outlining solutions.

“This has been the start of a conversation that we’re going to keep moving forward,” said Suskauer, who began her career as an assistant public defender and is now a private criminal defense lawyer. “The folks that are here today and participating are elected state attorneys, elected public defenders, chief judges, judges in circuit and county courts. We’ve had appellate judges, we have practitioners, we have folks from think tanks on both sides — and everyone else in between — all trying to come together.”

She said the summit was a chance to begin thinking of ways to make “meaningful, common-sense, criminal justice reform.”

There will likely be future meetings, although the timing and format are undecided, she said. The next step is the compiling of an official report by Stetson Professor Ellen Podgor and Stetson law students, Mary T. Samarkos and Jacob Bennett. That will be published in the January/February edition of The Florida Bar Journal.

Stories on the summit’s eight breakout sessions and from speakers on special topics are printed throughout the November 15 Newsand are linked below:

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