Florida Prison Sentences: Match Punishment To Crime

Posted: April 25, 2014 in News and politics

The punishment should fit the crime. That statement has long been a guiding principle, if not the reality, of the American justice system.

Yet an emerging movement in Florida and across the nation seeks to introduce another factor into the equation of justice: cost.

States and the federal government should spare no cost to ensure that society is protected, to the greatest extent practical, from the most dangerous criminals. In many cases, protection requires the government to place offenders in maximum-security jails and prisons.

But, in response to crime waves and a loss of public confidence in parole and other systems, Florida, other states and the federal government increased mandatory sentences and intensified the prosecution of many crimes — including nonviolent offenses.

Furthermore, Florida and other states eliminated or reduced a wide range of programs and facilities — such as substance-abuse treatment and halfway houses that ease ex-inmates out of incarceration and into jobs — designed to reduce the number of people winding up in jail again in subsequent cases.


The Florida Legislature is considering bills that could promote public safety and increase the chances that former offenders would stay out of trouble.

One bill would, among other things, require that all inmates leaving the state system be provided a state-sanctioned identification card. The simple act of ensuring that ex-prisoners have identification will reduce the barriers to obtaining housing, employment, medication and social-welfare benefits (often including aid for military veterans). ID cards do not ensure success but, too often, lack of them guarantees failure.

On another front, Gov. Rick Scott proposed and the Legislature is considering funding to operate two new (but unused) prisons that would provide more than 800 slots for substance-abuse treatment for medium-security inmates. Another proposal calls for reinstating about 400 beds in programs that divert nonviolent drug offenders from prison and into treatment.

If the Legislature takes these steps, they would represent progress.

Additional, substantive steps to maintain public safety while decreasing costs should be considered in the future, as a report released last week by Florida TaxWatch recommends.

TaxWatch — a business-oriented but independent nonprofit that examines taxation and spending — has become part of a “smart justice” movement in Florida and the United States.

Commissioned by TaxWatch, the recent report — “Overcriminalization in Florida” — calls for the state “to review options to reduce the prison population through downgrading offenses and implementing alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent” offenders who commit minor crimes.


“Nearly half of Florida’s new prison admissions are nonviolent offenders charged with third-degree felonies, the lowest offense on the felony severity chart,” said Dominic M. Calabro, the head of TaxWatch. “Florida would be safer by rehabilitating these offenders without having them spend time in costly prisons … where they are detained with dangerous, violent criminals.”

It’s important to emphasize that TaxWatch and other groups embracing “smart justice” do not suggest immediate, wholesale revisions in Florida’s criminal laws. The TaxWatch report, for instance, calls for a review of third-degree felony offenses to determine if Florida is “overcriminalizing” certain low-level offenses.

For instance, depending on the circumstances, Floridians accused of possessing relatively minor amounts of marijuana or unauthorized prescription drugs can be charged with third-degree felonies. So can people who use false identification cards, fail to pay certain taxes or write bad checks.

“The punishment should fit the crime and the cost,” said Dan McCarthy, director of the TaxWatch Center for Smart Justice.

In light of predictions that Florida’s prison counts will continue to grow at rates substantially higher than the general population, it’s time to rethink the status quo.

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