Florida must become a full partner in the national movement away from getting tough on crime to getting smart on crime.
On Monday, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said he would instruct the 94 regional U.S. attorneys not to invoke minimum-mandatory sentences for minor drug offenses. Prosecutors would focus on those tied to gangs or cartels. His comments mark the most significant attempt by the Department of Justice to change three decades of self-destructive policies.
As Mr. Holder noted, in the last 30 years the country’s population has increased by roughly one-third, while the federal prison population has increased roughly 800 percent. Driving that increase have been mandatory five- and 10-year sentences that often fail to distinguish between drug lords and drug addicts. With just 5 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. holds 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Drug sentencing policies also disproportionately punish blacks and Latinos.
Florida has followed this trend. When crack cocaine arrived in the mid-1980s, the Legislature enacted similar mandatory sentences — to “get tough.” Low-level drug offenders filled state prisons, creating a shortage of space. The Department of Corrections began releasing other inmates early. One of them was Charlie Street, who had done eight years of a 15-year sentence for attempted murder in Palm Beach County.
In December 1988, after he got out, Street killed two police officers in Miami-Dade County. So the Legislature started a prison building boom. Capacity has nearly tripled in the last quarter-century. But even as the crack scourge passed, policies didn’t change. Four years ago, when the Department of Corrections said it needed 19 new prisons at a cost of $2 billion, business groups in Florida began pushing for smart over tough.
Florida, though, was behind. In 2007, Texas — hardly a soft-on-crime state — spent nearly $250 million not on new prisons but to keep inmates from committing new crimes after they were released. According to the Pew Charitable Trust Public Safety Performance Project, the strategy has saved $2 billion in prison spending, and nearly 40 percent fewer ex-cons are violating their parole. The Pew project also estimates that in 12 other states that passed criminal-justice reforms between 2011 and 2013 the projected savings are $4 billion by 2023.
The nation’s crime rate, which peaked in 1991, has declined rapidly and continues to drop. Could the reason be those “tough” sentencing policies? Most experts don’t think so. Pew reports that in Texas the crime rate has kept going down, and the reforms remain popular with voters.
Allison DeFoor, a former sheriff of Monroe County, runs the Project for Accountable Justice at Florida State University. In an email, he said, “Over time, we will be best served to head the justice system toward what the data show works. Like in health care and education, measurement of performance will be a change, but over time an improvement.”
In 2009, the Florida Department of Corrections expanded its programs that prepare inmates for life after prison. Since then, fewer have reoffended, and the prison population finally has dipped below 100,000 and is trending lower. The Legislature, though, has defeated attempts to reform sentencing policies as other states have. Florida has lacked political courage.
This effort, though, has been bipartisan. On the federal level, for example, Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, have introduced the Smarter Sentencing Act. It would give Mr. Holder’s ideas the force of law. Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi and the 20 state attorneys should publicly support the effort. Less spending. Less crime. More lives saved. Florida can’t delay any longer.
for The Post Editorial Board