Sum­mit builds con­sen­sus on crim­i­nal jus­tice re­form

Tampa Bay Times - - Opinion -

From high rates of in­car­cer­a­tion and re­cidi­vism to min­i­mum manda­tory sen­tenc­ing, from pre­trial re­lease to con­vic­tion in­tegrity, is­sues af­fect­ing Florida’s crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem have been a fo­cal point of dis­cus­sion for years. While some pos­i­tive changes have been im­ple­mented, many crit­i­cal chal­lenges re­main that re­quire broad col­lab­o­ra­tion for ef­fec­tive re­form.

The Florida Bar re­cently con­vened its first Crim­i­nal Jus­tice Sum­mit, as­sem­bling a di­verse group of stake­hold­ers to of­fer in­sights and iden­tify po­ten­tial im­prove­ments. Elected state at­tor­neys and pub­lic de­fend­ers, judges, leg­is­la­tors and prac­ti­tion­ers came to­gether to dis­cuss, de­bate and find com­mon ground. As the first for­mer pub­lic de­fender to lead the state’s le­gal pro­fes­sion, I am proud that this ef­fort pro­vided a fo­rum for all three branches of gov­ern­ment, as well as crim­i­nal jus­tice ad­vo­cates, to fo­cus upon mean­ing­ful re­forms.

Although the Florida Bar can­not take of­fi­cial po­si­tions on any of these is­sues, we are com­mit­ted to help­ing fur­ther these dis­cus­sions. Our mem­bers are uniquely qual­i­fied to pro­vide im­por­tant per­spec­tives and to fa­cil­i­tate more con­ver­sa­tions around crim­i­nal jus­tice re­form in the fu­ture.

Sum­mit par­tic­i­pants heard from na­tional au­thor­i­ties and pan­els of ex­perts, who dis­cussed the fol­low­ing key ar­eas:

SEN­TENC­ING: As of 2016, 63 per­cent of in­car­cer­a­tions were for non­vi­o­lent crimes and half of new in­mates had no his­tory of vi­o­lent of­fenses. Our state’s ha­bit­ual of­fender laws have not had a mean­ing­ful re­view for more than two decades, and our prisons now house about 96,000 in­mates with a cur­rent state bud­get for only 86,000. Pan­elists cov­ered a wide range of ideas in­clud­ing ex­pand­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for pa­role, re­con­sid­er­ing the thresh­old that el­e­vates a theft from a mis­de­meanor to a felony, and al­low­ing judges more dis­cre­tion, in­clud­ing the abil­ity to de­vi­ate from min­i­mum manda­tory sen­tences when pos­si­ble.

JU­VE­NILE JUS­TICE: Ju­ve­niles his­tor­i­cally have a high re­cidi­vism rate and a greater propen­sity for crim­i­nal be­hav­ior once they have been ex­posed to adult sanc­tions. In the­ory, we should hold youth­ful of­fend­ers ac­count­able with­out sac­ri­fic­ing com­pas­sion. Pan­elists said a con­sis­tent statewide civil ci­ta­tion pro­gram could help, as would en­hanced com­mu­ni­ca­tion, co­op­er­a­tion and col­lab­o­ra­tion among var­i­ous agen­cies, fam­ily mem­bers and of­fi­cials tasked with su­per­vis­ing

and in­ter­act­ing with ju­ve­nile of­fend­ers.

SPE­CIALTY COURTS: Florida’s drug, men­tal health, ju­ve­nile, vet­er­ans and other spe­cialty courts are de­signed to re­ha­bil­i­tate de­fen­dants and re­duce re­cidi­vism. Pan­elists agreed these courts have been suc­cess­ful, but need care­ful struc­tur­ing, ad­e­quate and sus­tained fund­ing, en­hanced staffing and ex­pe­ri­enced judges. Dis­cus­sions cen­tered on the need for a con­sis­tent re­view of spe­cialty courts, both in ur­ban and ru­ral parts of the state. This en­sures best and proper prac­tices and ex­pands the courts to as­sist more de­fen­dants, in­clud­ing those charged with more se­ri­ous non­vi­o­lent crimes.

MEN­TAL HEALTH: Na­tion­ally, Florida is among the low­est-ranked states for ac­cess to men­tal health treat­ment, re­sult­ing in big prob­lems within a crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem that an­nu­ally ad­mits about 120,000 peo­ple with men­tal health is­sues into our jails and prisons. Dis­cus­sions in­cluded ex­pand­ing train­ing for lo­cal law en­force­ment to rec­og­nize men­tal health is­sues, en­sur­ing the avail­abil­ity of spe­cialty courts de­signed to han­dle such is­sues, and pro­vid­ing of­fend­ers with proper treat­ment once in­car­cer­ated.

OF­FENDER RE-EN­TRY: Help­ing in­mates pre­pare for life out­side of prison, es­pe­cially at the com­ple­tion of a lengthy sen­tence, is crit­i­cal. Com­bat­ting re­cidi­vism and as­sist­ing with a smooth tran­si­tion back into so­ci­ety be­gins with en­sur­ing that con­victed felons are pro­vided with the re­sources they need to suc­ceed. Pos­si­ble so­lu­tions iden­ti­fied are in­creas­ing job train­ing and re­mov­ing bar­ri­ers to em­ploy­ment such as the manda­tory with­hold­ing of driver’s li­censes for un­paid fees and fines.

•••

A sum­mary re­port on the sum­mit by Stet­son Law pro­fes­sor Ellen S. Pod­gor will be pub­lished in the Jan­uary/Fe­bru­ary edi­tion of The Florida Bar Jour­nal; and, videos of the ses­sions will be avail­able on the Bar’s web­site for fur­ther re­view and con­tin­ued dis­cus­sions.

I am grate­ful to ev­ery­one who par­tic­i­pated in this sum­mit, but, change will not hap­pen overnight. We must con­tinue to fur­ther de­fine prob­lems and pin­point so­lu­tions that can be agreed upon and en­acted. Michelle R. Suskauer is pres­i­dent of the Florida Bar. She has worked in the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem her en­tire ca­reer, and is part­ner with Di­mond Ka­plan & Roth­stein, P. A., where she chairs their crim­i­nal lit­i­ga­tion divi­sion. She be­gan her le­gal ca­reer as an as­sis­tant pub­lic de­fender in West Palm Beach.

MICHELLE SUSKAUER

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