Florida has been behind the curve on criminal justice reforms and it shows.
The state’s prison population grew by more than 1,000 percent between 1970 and 2014, including a period in which state lawmakers led the country in lengthening sentences. Florida now spends more than $2.4 billion annually incarcerating nearly 100,000 people, the third-largest prison population in the U.S.
The social and fiscal costs of mass incarceration have led people of varying viewpoints, from the Koch brothers to the Southern Poverty Law Center, to support criminal justice reforms. Yet as 33 states have implemented such reforms in the past decade, Florida has repeatedly failed to make significant changes.
The Florida Campaign for Criminal Justice Reform, a nonpartisan coalition supporting such changes, is pushing for the next legislative session to be different. And there is some bipartisan support in the Legislature for reforms such as giving judges more discretion with non-violent offenders in cases that currently require harsh mandatory minimum sentences.
But cities and counties shouldn’t wait for the state to enact changes. Alachua County and Gainesville have long led the way in reforms such as using pretrial supervision programs as an alternative to jail, diversion programs such as drug and mental health courts, and issuing civil citations to juvenile offenders.
But more must be done, something that both those working in the local criminal justice system and everyday residents recognize. Civic groups such as the League of Women Voters of Alachua County, which has a column published today on criminal justice proposals, and The Sun-sponsored Gainesville For All initiative have been looking at additional reforms that can be instituted at the local level.
GNV4ALL won’t finish its latest recommendations for a few weeks, but ideas being considered by its criminal justice team include reforms to ensure jails aren’t crowded with low-level offenders who are behind bars simply because they can’t afford bail. The team is also looking at new ways to divert individuals with mental illness from jail into treatment, as well as ensure situations in which officers respond to someone having a mental health crisis have a positive outcome.
One possibility is a central receiving facility where officers can bring individuals with mental illness to be directed to treatment options. Unfortunately while local commissioners have been supportive of such a facility, the state has backed off a previous commitment to match that kind of funding.
Another proposal is having a team of licensed clinicians who would be able to respond with law enforcement officers on calls involving mental health issues. Other ideas include expanding training in de-escalation techniques for law enforcement and options for less-lethal weapons.
Alachua County and Gainesville are fortunate to have citizens as well as leaders in the local criminal justice system considering such reforms. Together we can cut the costs of mass incarceration and reduce recidivism by continuing to pursue these changes, providing an example for the rest of the state to follow.
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