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Taking a hard look at sentencing reform

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Raise the amount that causes a theft to be charged as a felony instead of a misdemeanor? Back off from minimum mandatory sentences and give judges more discretion, especially for nonviolent crimes? Reintroduce parole in Florida?

Those were among suggestions — the last one from a state attorney — by panelists in a Criminal Justice Summit session on sentencing reform.

Eighth Circuit Public Defender Stacy Scott called for “a major study of our criminal punishment code to see what it’s doing, who it is doing it to, and what the effect is.”

She rattled off numbers: 63 percent of state prison admissions in 2016 were for nonviolent crimes, and half of those new admittees had no history of violent crime; African-American inmates make up 46 percent of the prison population and only 16 percent of the state’s overall population; habitual offender laws haven’t been studied since 1992 and that review showed huge discrepancies in the application of laws across circuits and a failure of targeting the worst offenders, as well as a bias against African-American offenders.

Judges need more discretion and sentencing guidelines should be reviewed, especially for nonviolent crimes, Scott said, and downward sentencing departures should be allowed for substance addictions. She also said drug sentences are too draconian, and someone with one day’s worth of pills can get a three-year minimum mandatory and someone with a week’s worth can get 15 years.

Judge Nelly Khouzam Second District Court of Appeal Judge Nelly Khouzam, a former circuit judge, said she talked with several trial judges in preparation for the summit, and they were concerned with the lack of discretion judges have in cases involving mandatory minimum sentences, citing instances where a momentary bad decision, an act done while drunk, or an opiod-addiction problem led to long sentences.

Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Orange Park, said the perception that lawmakers oppose changes in the criminal justice system because they fear being seen as soft on crime is exaggerated. Rather, even though corrections costs around $2.5 billion, that’s still less than 3 percent of the state’s $85 billion budget.

“There isn’t a budgetary urgency,” Brandley said. “What motivates many of us is not saving money. . . what they [and the public] are concerned about is keeping themselves safe. What is the appropriate public policy to make us the safest.”

He agreed Florida imprisons too many people and that the Department of Corrections cannot handle upwards of 100,000 inmates.

Bradley pointed to the juvenile justice system, which is shifting to prevention over incarceration and putting more money into assessments and treatments, and said that could be a model for the adult system.

“We’re doing the right things in the juvenile space; in the adult space it’s much more modest,” he said.

Bill Cervone Eighth Circuit State Attorney Bill Cervone said he’s seen the full cycle on the debate about long incarcerations versus alternatives and rehabilitation.

“Some people can and will commit disproportionately large numbers of crimes. . . . I look at the charts and I see incarceration rates going up and crime rates doing down and they look like mirror images to me. You cannot escape the conclusion that incarcerating the right people, even if it is for long periods of time, makes us all safer and that is so whether it is safe from the most violent among us or safe from those who will constantly prey upon our property,” he said.

“If you have a chronic health issue and you get it under control with some sort of medication. . . stop taking the medication and the chronic health issue you had under control will come back. To me, we must be cautious in what we try to do away with.”

Sen. Rob Bradley Both Cervone and Bradley said there are some crimes, such as murder, for which society should say the punishment is never getting out of jail, even if terminally ill, and even if that means the state has to pay higher health costs for those older inmates.

As Bradley put it, “You also have victims who think they live in a society where justice is served.”

But Cervone said he did support some changes, such as raising the minimum felony amount from $300, although perhaps not to $1,500 as proposed in legislation earlier this year. Or lifting the lifelong DUI driving ban for those who have demonstrated decades of sobriety.

“To me maybe the abolition of parole was one of the dumbest things we ever did,” Cervone said, noting he was speaking for himself and not other state attorneys. “Maybe we need to go back and look at something that might serve as some valuable reentry posture toward the large majority of prisoners who we know someday will get out.” (Florida abolished parole for most crimes in 1983 and phased it out for the rest by 1995.)

Scott endorsed Cervone’s call for reconsidering parole, particularly for those convicted of nonviolent crimes. That, she said, creates an incentive for inmates to earn gain time, and participate in education and training programs that help them reenter society.

In response to a question, Bradley said, “Where I do see an appetite for change is to do some of the things we have done already and put more money behind it and that is nonviolent crimes, and particularly drug crimes.. . . I think specialty courts — drug courts and mental-health courts — are important tools to empower the judge, the public defenders, and the state attorneys who are there. Let’s marry what the needs are of the person with something to make them better and improve their lot in life and their families’ lot in life.”

The panelists generally agreed that specialty courts help the criminal justice system and should be more widely used and that better, more thorough studies are needed to show how the criminal justice system functions, how it affects inmates, and racial bias in the system. They also supported ending the suspension of driver’s licenses for not paying court costs and fees and for non-driving-related infractions.

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