In a show of bipartisan solidarity, State Senators Jeff Brandes (R) and Daryl Rouson (D) held a community forum on criminal justice reform at St. Petersburg College Thursday evening.
Moderated by former Judge Dee Anna Farnell, the forum’s aim was to raise awareness on how the criminal justice system has a myriad of problems that need to be addressed – chief among them being the focus on punishment rather than rehabilitation. All three guests explained how this longstanding practice is detrimental not just for the person going through the system but also for taxpayers and the community at large.
Judge Farnell set the tone for the forum by opening with a previous statement from Brandes, “Our Department of Corrections should be renamed the Department of Warehousing, because we don’t correct, we just warehouse people.”
Brandes said that he first became passionate on the issue after unexpectedly being selected to sit on a criminal justice committee, even though he has no real criminal justice background. He recalled one of his first meetings of this small, five-person committee that took place in a basement where the Secretary of Criminal Justice was giving a report on lawsuits that had occurred in the prison system over the last year.
There they told a story of a man that was taken out of his cell by corrections officer, placed in a shower with the hot water turned all the way up, and left there for hours. Despite his pleads for help and his skin falling off no one came to his aid, and he passed away. Brandes said that he looked around the room in disbelief and saw someone texting on their phone and another reading from their laptop.
“I had this visceral reaction that I was on plane at 30,000 feet with an engine out, upside down, and no one was at the controls,” said Brandes.
Brandes compared working on the criminal justice system to being a firefighter and going to a house that is on fire, but every room is engulfed. The first step is just to figure out where to start.
“So, the place that I figured out where to start is, get on the radio and call for help,” said Brandes. “Because you can’t do it all yourself.”
Rouson credited Brandes for impressing upon him the urgency to pop in and visit prisons, and explained that even minor changes are difficulty to enact amid political posturing. Rouson gave Senator Jason Pizzle’s bill to change the name of the Criminal Punishment Code to the “Public Safety Code” as an example.
“Just that minor change might have started the avalanche of real change in terms of not warehousing people,” said Rouson. “The bill made it through two Senate committees but died in its third committee, and that shows the difficulty of trying to get even simple things done in Tallahassee.”
Farnell also recommended that elected officials visit prisons throughout Florida to get a better feel for how they operate. She said that so many people do not take advantage of that and “maybe that don’t want to see what we’re doing or not doing in the great state of Florida.”
“My philosophy was that if I’m gong to send someone to prison I wanted to see where they went,” said Farnell.
Rouson said they pushed for real police reform such as de-escalation techniques and banning chokeholds, but with the current hyper-partisan nature of the legislature the only bipartisan bill they could get passed was on new standards and opportunities for training. He added that while that was a small win, the bill did not “have any teeth” for failures to comply, and that was a real weakness.
Brandes broke down the criminal justice system into three areas. The first is diversion and sentencing reform, and he said the state is having incredible success with juvenile citations. While this is voluntary it is heavily utilized in Florida, and Brandes would like to see this extend to adults as well.
“They don’t get an arrest record, they go into a diversion program, they have a civil citations and they’re followed up with,” said Brandes. “And lo and behold, most of them never get back in trouble.”
The second area is the prison system itself. Brandes said most of the problems here are related to financial issues and underpaid officers. He said that 40% of new officers will be gone in a year, and 60% will have found new professions in just two years. This leads to a revolving door of trainees that are ill equipped to properly handle inmates, as well as officers that are prime targets for bribes.
The last area of concern was re-entry.
“To me, this is one where if Florida committed itself it could do radically more,” said Brandes. “Because right now when you leave the prison system you get $50 and a bus pass.”
Brandes said that with today’s technology and the desire of faith-based organizations to follow up with and mentor these people, that this is unacceptable. With the two main factors of becoming a productive member of society being going home to a stable family and job, Brandes said that is what the system should be focusing on. While the state cannot control the family dynamic, it can assign a mentor and provide workforce training.
“A third of people that are incarcerated in the Florida system can’t even read,” said Brandes. “They’re functionally illiterate. We’re not even meeting the minimum standards to get the literate, while some are with us for decades.”
Farnell also gave statistics for the public’s desire for sentencing reform. She said that 87% of voters support replacing minimum mandatory sentencing, 92% think that prison time for low risk, nonviolent offenders should be dramatically decreased, and that 94% believe that prisons should offer more rehabilitation and training services.
“We need to give judges more discretion,” said Rouson. “We need to create more diversion programs that give people treatment and another chance, rather than incarceration where they get no chance at rehabilitation. This was a tough year for criminal justice reform, and it should have been an easy one.”