By Sal Nuzzo and Adrian Moore
Guest column: Florida Sheriffs report erroneously argues against major criminal justice reforms.
A Florida Sheriffs Association recent report highlights their opposition to almost all criminal justice reform, and specifically they oppose changes to Florida’s “Truth in Sentencing” requirement that prisoners serve 85 percent of their sentence.
In doing so, the Sheriffs Association attacks the idea of rehabilitation of offenders and argues that only punishment and longer sentences work. Mark Twain was fond of saying there are three types of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics. This report has managed the hat trick in hitting all three.
Ignoring contrary evidence
The central argument of the Sheriffs Association report is that reductions due to good behavior or success in rehabilitation don’t reduce crime. They cite a few studies and provide a few charts to support their argument.
Only at the very end of the report, in the conclusion, do they say, “the extant literature on the effects of truth in sentencing is mixed,” citing one study with mixed results, and another with opposite conclusions. At no point in the body of the report do they discuss or cite any of the vast data contradicting their argument. They cherry pick literature and statistics and ignore everything that doesn’t support their conclusion.
And they ignored a lot. Experts like Alfred Blumenstein of Carnegie Mellon, Philip Cook of Duke, William Spellman of the University of Texas, and Jeremy Travis of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice point out that increasing sentences has almost no deterrent effect.
A 2014 study by the National Academy of Science concluded there’s no clear scientific evidence that more prison time reduces crime overall. And a 2015 analysis by the New York University School of Law Brennan Center for Justice concluded that increased incarceration no longer has a strong effect on reducing crime in Florida.
There are many more examples, but that doesn’t matter to the Sheriff’s Association. Their report never discusses any mitigating data, instead focusing only on things that support their predetermined opinions. In the world of research, we call this “confirmation bias” and it’s a fatal flaw in seeking objectivity.
Ignoring their own data
The Sheriffs Association report states in several places that “95 percent of Florida prisoners are violent, repeat offenders.” If true that would be an argument against Florida’s 25-year-old truth in sentencing law. How effective can it be if after a quarter century virtually all criminals are repeat offenders?
To conclude that 95 percent of prisoners are violent, they count many clearly nonviolent crimes such as drug possession, drug manufacture, drug sales, selling stolen property and others as “violent.”
The fact is a 2019 report by the Crime and Justice Institute prepared for the Florida Legislature states “analysis of prison admissions data provided by Florida Department of Corrections show 48 percent of new court commitments to prison in 2016 had no current or prior violent offenses on their record.” Nevertheless, the Sheriffs Association report doubles down on falsehoods about repeat offenders for drug crimes.
Their report contains a detailed table showing 793 prisoners in the system as “first-time offenders with no previous convictions.” But in a companion document “debunking the myth that drug offenders in state prisons are non-violent,” they claim, “there are no first-time drug offenders ending up in our state prisons.”
Apparently, 793 equals zero. Or more likely, they insist on arguing all inmates are violent, repeat offenders regardless what the data say. A 2019 report by the Florida Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability on low-risk offenders stated Corrections Department data showed “almost half of offenders serving a mandatory minimum sentence for a drug offense were first-time, non-violent, non-sexual offenders.”
Do we want a justice system or not?
A justice system should accomplish two things: it should protect the public and wisely steward taxpayer dollars.
When even Florida Corrections Secretary Mark Inch has called our corrections system in crisis, that should matter. Examining policies that can work on the margins to better protect the public and better spend tax dollars should be a no-brainer.
If we want to improve public safety and better invest the $2.8 billion in tax dollars that go to the Department of Corrections, targeted improvements must be made. Most inmates are eventually released; we want them to leave transformed citizens. The methods for doing that exist. We know this because we’ve seen them work in state after state.
We hope policymakers recognize this and act in Floridians’ best interests.
Adrian Moore is vice president at Reason Foundation and Sal Nuzzo is vice president at the James Madison Institute.