I am one member of a five person board. The opinions I express on this forum are mine only, and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Escambia County Staff, Administrators, Employees, or anyone else associated with Escambia County Florida. I am interested in establishing this blog as a means of additional transparency to the public, outreach to the community, and information dissemination to all who choose to look. Feedback is welcome, but because public participation is equally encouraged, appropriate language and decorum is mandatory.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Initiatives to Reduce Incarceration Rates in Order to Save Money

Some are of the opinion that the above graph points to the need to reform sentencing, I happen to think there may be a beneficial correlation with the reduction of crime rates being a result of the incarceration levels going up.....

The BCC will be discussing the topic of criminal justice reform at tomorrow’s Committee of the Whole meeting.  Presented for backup were several articles from Florida Tax Watch and a recent article from IN Weekly.
After reading the backup and speaking to folks very familiar with the courts locally, I have a few thoughts of my own on these recommended initiatives….but first, it is important to realize how the system works in real life.
Law enforcement officers make arrests.
The State Attorney is like a “Super Judge” and this office has discretion with respect to which cases get charged and what penalties are sought.  From time to time, Judges will disagree with sentences sought by the State Attorney, and this can create tension between the offices.
Judges try the cases.  Judges do what they do-prosecutors do what they do- and police officers do what they do.
To enact serious sentencing reform, we have to get buy-in and cooperation from the judges.  We have to elect good judges to the bench, and we have to understand that sometimes we will disagree with their sentences.  We must understand this as well:   judges know more about the cases than do the media and members of the general public.  Often the sentences the judges impose are mandatory and the judges have minimal discretion; in other instances the Judges do have discretion and wide latitude to impose various punishments-which they frequently exercise.
The media exacerbates the sentencing discretion issue when they fail to report on cases honestly or when they go after Judges in articles questioning sentences and/or condemning judges for statements made in court.  Some judges have been taken out of context and eviscerated by the local press—and the judges are powerless to respond.
If judges are ripped to shreds by the media for giving some offenders (ones that are non-violent with a high likelihood of successful rehabilitation) a second chance and a lenient sentence---the odds are that these judges may be hesitant to offer these sorts of chances again.
The system, while imperfect, works. It is slow, plodding, and cumbersome, but it works.  It works well when every independent agency does their job and works together (Law Enforcement, Judicial, State Attorney), staying in their own lanes.
Meanwhile, the costs of the system to the county are mounting, and the need to find savings within this system is paramount.
Florida Tax Watch has several initiatives they recommend to reduce the costs of incarceration.  Most of these recommendations will require coordination with Law Enforcement, State and Federal Legislators, and most importantly with the State Attorney’s office that prosecutes the cases and the Judges who impose the sentences.  Many of these initiatives will require laws to be amended in Tallahassee. The current leadership in the Florida Legislature may not be receptive to weakening the “tough on crime” sentencing laws on the books—so the BCC needs to be careful on pushing too hard for this at the state level.  However, we could advocate for some of the initiatives.
Some of the initiatives that make sense to me include:

1.        Looking at ways to substitute financial penalties for jail-time for non-injury Driving While License Suspended (DWLS) infractions.

2.       Reducing the number of non-violent prisoners in jail for minor drug infractions (users, not traffickers).

3.       Utilization of electronic monitoring for non-violent offenders (subsidized if the prisoner is unable to pay)

4.       Looking at a plan to release elderly, sick prisoners that do not pose a significant risk if released.

5.  Diverting a large number of low-level offenders to our road prison program

All of these sorts of ideas could be considered but all of these require close collaboration with the other stakeholders in the criminal justice system as well. 

Any of these things we can offer to the judges will help the system overall and will save taxpayers money.  Before I will go along with these changes, though, I will need to ensure that we communicate such potential changes with Law enforcement, the judicial and legislative branches, and constituents in my district. 

My constituents and I want safe neighborhoods and firm penalties imposed on criminals, not watered down, PC policies that could potentially increase crime locally.  I will move through these initiatives very carefully and with great trepidation, because I am a law and order Commissioner and I favor the minimum mandatory sentences, Truth in sentencing laws, and harsh punishment for violent offenders and drug dealers.  But I am open minded and not opposed to looking into the initiative I listed above and one BIG ONE below that didn't make the TaxWatch papers......

********Florida has the second highest number of prisoners that are illegal immigrants (second only to Texas) with THOUSANDS of undocumented prisoners being held in our prisons.  Why can we not turn these over to the Feds so they can be housed in the Federal system?  This would generate REAL savings locally!************

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