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New research provides insight on Florida’s corrections system and suggests path forward for reforms

11/13/2017

Project on Accountable Justice releases report about the Florida Prison System

For Immediate Release: November 13, 2017
Contact: Deborrah Brodsky 850.566-8944 dbrodsky@fsu.edu

Tallahassee, Fla. – The Project on Accountable Justice (PAJ) today released an interactive, web-based research report focused on the Florida prison system. The report, entitled “Florida Criminal Justice Reform: Understanding the Challenges and Opportunities,” is an effort to help citizens and policy makers understand some of the dynamics that make Florida’s prison system large, dangerous, and expensive.

The report shows how short-sighted policies and practices drove the state’s prison population to higher than one hundred thousand people, and how Florida’s experience differs from those of other states like New York. In discussing the underlying dynamics of Florida’s prison system – who is going to prison and why, who is in prison and for how long – the report demonstrates a trifecta of ineffective and expensive strategies: 1) too many people are sent to prison for minor and nonviolent offenses; 2) overly punitive sentencing policies – like mandatory minimum sentences – keep people in prison for exceptionally long terms that are too often incongruous with the nature of their crime; and 3) the unavailability of prisoner review systems and incentive structures to reward prisoners for good behavior prevent state officials from introducing release strategies that could safely reduce the prison population while also making it more manageable.

“It doesn’t have to be this way,” said Deborrah Brodsky, Director of the Project on Accountable Justice. “One of the most important things this report demonstrates is that systemic reform is possible if we make a concerted effort. In the 1990s, almost every state suffered from similar problems. But in the years since, the vast majority of states have learned from their mistakes. All around us – not just in New York, but also Georgia, Texas, and even Louisiana – state legislators have taken deliberate steps to reduce over-criminalization and align prison sentences with basic notions of fairness.”

As former Judge Simone Marstiller, PAJ Executive Committee member, notes, “We’re not saying change is going to happen overnight – it took decades to get where we are now – but we are finally examining our system to see what is working and what isn’t, which policies and practices are keeping us safe and which ones aren’t, and what parts of a 2.4-billion-dollar corrections budget should be expanded or done away with.”

“Florida Criminal Justice Reform” argues that policy makers should know how the state’s criminal justice system measures up, and suggests some key metrics: Is the system fair and unbiased? Are prison sentences reserved for dangerous people who pose a threat to public safety? What are the costs and benefits of the prison system, in terms of rehabilitation and public safety, or recidivism and expense? As former Florida Attorney General and PAJ Chairman Richard Doran asks, “Do the current investments, practices, and policy strategies employed by our state’s criminal justice and correctional systems result in the returns Floridians expect and deserve?”

“Florida Criminal Justice Reform” is an accessible and interactive introduction to these questions. Among its findings are the following:

  • Nonviolent offenses drive prison admissions. Seventy-two percent of people admitted to prison in FY2015 were sentenced for a nonviolent offense.
  • In FY2015, the state spent $300 million to incarcerate people for drug offenses, and $107 million to incarcerate people for probation violations. The vast majority – more than 70 percent – of people sentenced to prison for a violation of probation were on probation for a nonviolent offense.
  • Florida’s mandatory minimum drug laws cost Florida taxpayers $106 million in FY2015.
  • Florida’s criminal justice system does not adhere to basic notions of fairness: your ZIP code and the color of your skin can sometimes matter more than your behavior.
  • Statewide, black Floridians are 5.5 times more likely to be imprisoned than white Floridians.
  • Residents of Panama City (14th Circuit) are 32 times more likely to be sent to prison for a VOP than people who live in Palm Beach (15th Circuit).
  • Statewide, black adults are almost twice as likely to be in prison for a drug offense than residents of the UK are to be in prison for any reason.
The report’s authors conclude with six recommendations, with guidance from previous research:
  • Enhance external oversight to improve transparency and effectiveness of Florida’s correctional facilities.
  • Build a risk-based system of pretrial practices to replace the current money-based bail system.
  • Keep youth out of confinement and the adult criminal justice system.
  • Review and modernize sentencing practices and policies.
  • Encourage local, community-driven solutions to crime through incentive funding.
  • Measure criminal justice success with better data collection and reporting.

“These reforms are possible and will make Florida a safer place to live and visit,” said the report’s lead author, Cyrus O’Brien. “A smaller system that judiciously reserved incarceration only for the purpose of incapacitating dangerous individuals would face fewer challenges and accomplish better results. Achieving a better system will require sustained, purposeful, and systemic reform.”

“Given early discussions by the Florida Legislature, coupled with heightened attention to the continuing problems faced by the prison system, we are hopeful that the 2018 Legislative Session will be a notable line in Florida’s history — a place where we depart from historical inertia and instead turn to rightsizing our state’s prison system,” said Brodsky.

“We urge Florida leaders to work to unravel the policies and practices that grow the prison population without making us safer.”

  The full report may be accessed here:

Florida Criminal Justice Reform: Understanding the Challenges and Opportunities

Florida Criminal Justice Reform: 2017 and Beyond

8/22/2017

In March 2017, a focus group of nine former inmates arrived with a list of recommendations for reform. The group met with student journalists from the University of North Florida following a conference held in Tallahassee organized by The Project on Accountable Justice (PAJ). Here's what we learned.

https://floridainmatereform.com/

Florida Criminal Justice Reform: 2017 and Beyond

4/13/2017

Highlights from the April 13, 2017, public forum held jointly by the Project on Accountable Justice and The Institute for Strategic Policy Solutions at St. Petersburg College. The fifth in our ongoing series of criminal justice reform events with St. Pete College since PAJ's founding, this event focused on the current deliberations of the Florida Legislature--from civil citations, to sentencing and mandatory minimums, to kids tried as adults, to a state-level criminal justice reform task force--as well as what's emerging in the world of risk-based pretrial decision making and bail reform. Many topics of discussion have emerged from these events: the role of incarceration in crime reduction, what’s working from other states, the challenges and dysfunction of our prison system, and the treatment of kids in the justice system---all of which came with constructive solutions about how to make Florida safer.

Florida Criminal Justice Reform: 2017 and Beyond

Requiring Juvenile Civil Citations in Florida

02/16/2017

Report demonstrates proposed legislation requiring juvenile civil citations for minor offenses would benefit public safety, youth and taxpayers.

ST. PETERSBURG, FL— A new report analyzing the impact of a proposed bill to reduce arrests for common youth misbehavior finds that unless juvenile civil citations are required per the proposed legislation there will be an estimated 14,000 arrests of Florida youth for common youth misbehavior for FY 2016-2017 and FY 2017-2018, including 6,000 black youth.

The report – “Requiring Juvenile Civil Citations in Florida” – was authored by one of Florida’s top juvenile civil citation experts, and endorsed by national and state juvenile justice and children’s organizations. The purpose of the report, which takes no position on the legislation, is to inform data-driven decision-making by legislators. (see full report at www.caruthers.institute)

Juvenile civil citations are an alternative to arrest for common youth misbehavior.  The proposed legislation – Senate Bill 196 – would require law enforcement to issue civil citations for first-time offenders with 11 common youth misbehaviors, like underage drinking and petit theft. “Requiring Juvenile Civil Citations in Florida” leaves for legislators to determine how best to increase civil citation utilization, whether through a law enforcement requirement or other approaches outlined in the report, which recommends funding.

“The proposed legislation is a result of the underutilization of juvenile civil citations by most counties, school districts and law enforcement agencies, -- jurisdictions not utilizing civil citations in at least a moderate 75% of all instances,” said author Dewey Caruthers, president of The Caruthers Institute (CI), a St. Petersburg think tank that conducts ongoing research on the issue. CI is formerly dewey & associates. Caruthers also authors the annual study “Stepping Up: Florida’s Top Juvenile Civil Citations,” in its third year.

This underutilization is in spite of the data that clearly shows juvenile civil citations in lieu of arrests have positive benefits on public safety, youth outcomes and taxpayer spending -- with arrests having detrimental effects in those areas, according to Caruthers, who noted that many of those underutilizing civil citations are not taking steps to increase utilization.

The report shows juvenile civil citation utilization will increase more rapidly, and the numbers of arrests reduced more quickly, if law enforcement is required to issue civil citations for the proposed 11 offenses for first-time offenders,” Caruthers said. “We study this issue weekly and we can find no data that shows arrests for common youth misbehavior are a good idea; yet removing law enforcement discretion, even only for first-time offenders with a small number of minor offenses, is a drastic move that needs significant consideration,” Caruthers said.

“Juvenile civil citations should be the presumptive norm for law enforcement throughout Florida, with arrests of juveniles only in rare and exceptional circumstances,” said Howard Simon, Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida, who noted this was a recommendation from the Stepping Up study 2016 that could be encouraged through training and funding on local levels.

Included in the proposed SB196 is the provision if law enforcement does make an arrest for certain minor infractions they should be required to provide documented justification for the arrest, which was a recommendation from a previous Stepping Up study.

Other key aspects of the “Requiring Juvenile Civil Citations in Florida” report:

  • The report provides data for two scenarios: The impact on public safety, youth and taxpayers if Legislators require juvenile civil citations; and the impact in those areas if the Legislature does not require the use of civil citations as an alternative to arrests.
  • The report recommends funding for local civil citation efforts. From the report: “Regardless of whether the Legislature requires juvenile civil citations for enumerated minor offenses, funding should be provided to incentivize county programs, school districts and law enforcement agencies to make civil citations the presumptive norm by law enforcement for all eligible offenses -- while maintaining needed law enforcement discretion.”
  • The report suggests that the proposed legislation would reduce geographical injustice, which currently occurs because the use of juvenile civil citations is voluntary. This means common youth misbehaviors eligible for civil citations can vary per county, per city and per law enforcement agency.
  • The report shows the statewide Relative Rate Index (RRI) which measures the racial disparity in arrests of juveniles. According to the new report, for FY 2014-2015 was 2.27, which means that for every white youth arrested for a civil citation-eligible offense there are 2.27 black youth arrested. There were 10 counties with an RRI less than the state average, which does not include those counties that did not utilize civil citation. Additionally, there were 14 counties with a Relative Rate Index above 4.0, with one county as high as 25.1.

Organizations endorsing the non-partisan report as a key resource for legislators to review: ACLU of Florida, James Madison Institute, Florida, State University Project on Accountable Justice, Florida Juvenile Justice Association, Florida PTA, and Joseph W. & Terrell S. Clark.

The Caruthers Institute (CI) is a nonprofit think-tank that conducts research, crafts solutions and leads advocacy on emerging youth issues for the purpose of data-driven social change.

CI’s studies, best practices and program models inform data-driven decision-making with legislation as well as with policy, systems and environment changes. Tampa Bay-based CI is a national thought-leader on its three issues of expertise, which include: Juvenile civil citations, child obesity, and K-12 education foundations. Visit www.caruthers.institute for more info.

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