Crime & punishment: Changes at Florida Dept. of Corrections
The Smart Justice movement has spurred criminal justice overhauls in some states, including Georgia. In Florida, reform is happening in fits and starts.
Former Republican Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, who worked on the issue for six years and came close to getting reforms passed in 2012, says she believes some leaders are skittish about the political consequences of supporting sentencing reform. “I think intellectually, everybody believes in rehabilitation and second chances, but they never want to be perceived as soft on crime, and I think that has been a huge barrier.”
Reformers hope that other tough-on-crime states can provide some encouragement to change. Over the past several years, more than a dozen states, from North Dakota to South Carolina, have moved away from mandatory minimums and one-size-fits all sentencing.
Many reform advocates believe reforms recently passed in Georgia could serve as a blueprint for Florida. The reforms spearheaded by Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal aim to reserve costly prison beds for the most dangerous offenders and establishes diversion alternatives for low-level, non-violent offenders. To accomplish this, the law creates “degrees” of burglary, forgery and theft, with increased penalties assigned to the more serious crimes. A burglary of a residence, for instance, triggers a harsher penalty than the burglary of an unoccupied structure or building.
Georgia also raised the felony theft threshold from $500 to $1,500, increased the felony shoplifting threshold from $300 to $500 and revised its penalties for simple possession of drugs, with less severe penalties for those found with small amounts. Georgia judges are also now permitted to depart from mandatory minimum sentences in limited circumstances.
With the expected savings from lower prison populations, Georgia plans to expand its drug courts, veterans’ courts and mental health courts. The state is also putting a greater emphasis on community-based supervision programs and adding more probation and parole officers to help low-level offenders stay on the straight and narrow. The state is also issuing limited driving permits to defendants and participants in drug court or mental health court programs, which will allow them to get to school or work as long as they are meeting the program’s requirements.
As Florida lawmakers return to Tallahassee for committee meetings in September, the Project on Accountable Justice, a new bipartisan think tank focused on criminal justice reform, plans to hold a seminar comparing and contrasting Florida’s criminal justice system to Georgia’s.
The group’s new chairman, Allison Defoor, a former sheriff, prosecutor and judge who’s become a prison reform advocate, says the organization aims to help Florida policy-makers have a more informed debate over corrections reform by providing them data and information about what’s working, or not working, elsewhere.
“What we hope to do,” he says, “is to let everybody be able to find consensus in the things we can agree on. Data don’t have opinions. Data just are, and that’s where we hope to be able to make a stand and people can rally around it.”