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Florida Gets a Tough Message: Clean Up Outdated Sentencing Policies

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Florida legislators have been given a bracing analysis of their criminal justice system that identifies serious disparities in sentencing policy and calls for a major overhaul to bring the state into alignment “with current research on public safety and recidivism reduction.”

The analysis by the Crime and Justice Institute (CJI) is the third in a series of CJI examinations of justice issues in Florida, which oversees the third largest state prison system in the U.S.

The 34-page paper identifies Florida’s Criminal Punishment Code (CPC), which was most recently amended in 1998, as the principal focus for reform.

“Florida law recognizes that prison is the most expensive response to criminal behavior and should be used on the most serious offenders,” said the paper, which was prepared by Lisa Margulies, Sam Packard and Len Engel of CJI.

“Yet [our] data findings reflect that the CPC, in practice, penalizes lower‐level offenders more harshly than necessary and results in sentencing disparity for similar offenses and criminal history based on geographic location.

“Moreover, the primacy of punishment appears to be in conflict with public safety.”

The paper examined in particular the sentencing outcomes for defendants who were given “scores” under a point system that gives judges discretion to decide the length of a sentence for individuals convicted of certain low level offenses, or whether they should be imprisoned, based on their criminal history and other metrics.

The point system was meant to establish an unbiased scientific way of evaluating offenders, but in practice it resulted in extreme disparities depending on the individual judicial circuit or county.

The authors found that, overall, average sentences given defendants who scored in the midpoint range amounted to nearly twice the minimum required prison sentence.

Geographical differences made the disparities even sharper. Three Florida counties sent 5 percent of defendants who scored in the midpoint range to prison, while two other counties sent over 30 percent each behind bars.

In eight of Florida’s 20 circuits, defendants convicted of low-level offenses were sent to prison at a rate higher than the state average of 11 percent, while in others defendants with similar scores were never sent to prison at all.

Noting that Florida’s sentencing policy “has not changed for decades, despite research indicating that it may not be providing the public safety benefits envisioned,” the analysts said there were now plenty of established, evidence-based models in other states showing the value of alternative approaches to sentencing policy.

“Volumes of criminological research suggest that treatment and supervision, as opposed to incarceration, have a greater impact on reducing recidivism and victimization, and that public safety can be protected while reducing prison populations,” the paper said.

The paper’s recommendations included shortening sentencing lengths; implementing post-release supervision as appropriate; and creating a “meaningful right of appeal to a higher court for sentences that exceed specified ranges.”

In an encouraging sign, some Florida lawmakers have already welcomed the paper’s conclusions.

“Now is the time to make Florida’s criminal justice system smarter,” State Sen. Jeff Brandes, chair of the state Appropriations Subcommitte on Criminal and Civil Justice, said in a news release accompanying the paper.

“We need to consider that, in some cases, incarceration may do more harm, especially for low-level offenders who need treatment and other services.

“We can do better for Floridians.”

At its peak in 2010-2011, Florida’s prison population came to more 102,000—a rate of incarceration significantly higher than the national average. By FY 2017-2018, the numbers had dropped to 96,252, according to the latest annual report of the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC).

Nevertheless, according to a 2018 report compiled by the Boston-based Criminal Resources for Justice (based on 2016 data), although Florida is sending fewer people to prison, “those who do end up there are serving longer sentences, including those convicted of low-level, nonviolent offenses.”

The CJI analysis can be downloaded here. Earlier reports by CJI include An Examination of Florida’s Prison Population Trends, released in 2017, and Data-Driven Solutions to Improve Florida’s Criminal Justice System (2018).

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