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Politics

Minimum Mandatories a Decade on: Longer Prison Terms in Florida

June 11, 2012 - 6:00pm

Criminal justice experts say they weren't surprised by last week's study showing that the time Florida prisoners spend behind bars has grown more than in any other state a 166 percent increase in the average sentence between 1990 and 2009.

Former Department of Corrections Secretary James McDonough ascribed the findings of the report, "Time Served: The High Cost, Low Return of Longer Prison Terms" by the Pew Center on the States to changes in Florida statutes during the mid-to-late 1990's.

He cited 1995's "Truth in Sentencing" law, requiring inmates to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences, and two 1999 laws: "Three Strikes," by which a third felony conviction requires a minimum sentence of 25 years to life if someone is injured or killed, and "10-20-Life," which established mandatory minimum sentences for crimes involving firearms.

"Politics in Florida has been such that public officials are afraid to appear, quote, 'weak on crime,'" McDonough said. "And the way that's defined is, 'Don't lighten up on the sentencing in any way whatsoever.'"

He said the state's prison terms jumped so much, so fast, because in 1990 Florida inmates were serving just 30 percent of their sentences.

"We had prison overcrowding at that time, so we came up with a parole policy and a probation policy that really let a lot of inmates out much, much too early," McDonough said. "So the pendulum had swung one way. And then throughout the '90s and the last 10 years, we saw the pendulum swing the other way.

"So you came up with a series of laws and policies that brought us up to this incredible increase in length of stay."

The state's position is that such laws have reduced crime immensely.

"Tough-on-crime initiatives have successfully reversed the lenient and disastrous criminal-justice policies of the early 1990s in Florida that caused so much suffering," notes the DOC website. "Thanks to the dedication of our state's law enforcement officers, correctional officers and state prosecutors who enforce tough laws like 10-20-LIFE, Florida's 'Index Crime' rate was the lowest in 34 years and the violent crime rate is the lowest in a quarter century."

Crime has been dropping for decades, but Florida's inmate population has risen by a factor of five over 30 years, during which time the general population has barely doubled. As of June 30, 1990, Florida prisons housed 42,733 offenders; by June 30, 2011, the figure was 102,319.

During the period examined by the study, Florida sentences for violent crimes increased from 2.1 years to 5 years, or 137 percent, while drug-related sentences rose 194 percent, from an average of 0.8 years to 2.3 years.

The 166 percent increase in the average prison sentence cost Florida taxpayers $1.4 billion in 2009, according to Pew.

Meanwhile, most states have embraced the concept of "smart justice," said prison chaplain Allison DeFoor, a former judge and sheriff. "Smart justice" is a compendium of performance measures, accountability and transparency designed to keep inmates from returning to prison after their release.

Fully one-third of Florida offenders return to prison within five years, DeFoor said. "That's not an efficient system. We talk about recidivism like it's an intellectual concept. Well, every new [act of] recidivism is somebody's grandmother's house got broken into or their car got jacked."

Florida's "smart justice" proponents have tried, for instance, to reduce sentences for nonviolent offenders. Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, repeatedly sponsored a measure that would have ended mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders, who would remain in custody during the rehabilitation portion of their sentences. She said many addicts have mental health issues that cause them to self-medicate, and that with treatment they can become taxpayers instead of inmates.

But while the Senate passed Bogdanoff's bill 40-0 and the House 112-4, Gov. Rick Scott vetoed the measure, saying it would be an injustice to victims.

"Justice to victims of crime is not served when a criminal is permitted to be released early from a sentence imposed by the courts," he wrote in his veto message. "This bill would permit criminals to be released after serving 50 percent of their sentences, thus creating an unwarranted exception to the rule that inmates serve 85 percent of their imposed sentences."

As to the Pew study, DOC spokeswoman Ann Howard said the agency wasn't involved in the research, "so we will refrain from comment out of respect and etiquette to the researchers."

"The department's only role is to execute the court orders, added DOC spokeswoman Jo Ellyn Rackleff. "The judges apply the sentences according to Florida statutes, which are passed by the Legislature."

Pew examined nonviolent offenders released in 2004, concluding that 14 percent of all offenders released in Florida could have served shorter sentences with no threat to public safety.

DeFoor said the most important thing about the study is that it measures the evidence. "It's ultimately got to be about accountability," he said. "We need to be driven by the data, not by emotional reactions on either side."

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