In 1986, Florida was a very different place than it is today. A gallon of gasoline cost an average of $0.93, Floridians had just elected Bob Martinez as their governor, and Apple was known to the average American only as a fruit.
Today, a gallon of gasoline costs $2.13, Florida has seen six additional governors since Bob Martinez, and Apple is getting ready to launch its eighth version of an iPhone—something unimaginable in the 1980’s. Much has changed in the state of Florida since 1986, but unfortunately, its threshold for a first-time felony theft offense has remained stubbornly the same: a mere $300.
As the recent Presidential election attested, Florida regularly commands the national spotlight. This is evident in the world of criminal justice.
An adequate mens rea (which is legalese for a “guilty mind”) requirement in all criminal laws protects anyone that did not intend to commit a crime from unjustly being exposed to criminal prosecution and the unfortunate consequences that result. The collateral consequences of even an arrest, in itself, regardless of whether the charges are dismissed or an individual is ultimately prosecuted, convicted or sentenced can dramatically impact an individual’s future job prospects or higher education admissions. The erosion of this protection should be unsettling, especially to Floridians.
Florida has long been one of the nation’s top importers in the most important category of all – people. Whether to find opportunity in a state with no income tax or to enjoy a blissful retirement, Florida has been a shiny beacon for millions of people from other states and countries. Now, in addition to importing people, Florida has an opportunity to import conservative criminal justice reforms from states like Texas, Georgia, and South Carolina that have proven it is possible to reduce both crime and incarceration.
In 2016, Florida began taking small, but important, steps in the direction of reform. Advocates in Florida who are eager to see the state go further in the coming years will need to continue doing what they did in 2016: making conservative arguments that focus on holding both offenders and the criminal justice system accountable, keeping families together, and reintegrating offenders into the workforce. In the world of criminal justice, there is a right way and a wrong way to pursue reform. The conservative arguments are the right way forward—they always have been—and advocates should continue to have confidence in the conservative argument for why reform is imperative.
At the heart of the United States’ criminal justice system is the principle that someone accused of a crime is innocent until proven guilty. Nevertheless, 60 percent of those detained in Florida jails—35,000 people on any given day are awaiting trial, not convicted of a crime—at an average cost of more than $815 million per year to Florida taxpayers.
The efficacy of the tough on crime mantra of American politics may have reached its apex in Florida politics. A September 2016 poll conducted by The James Madison Institute and the Charles Koch Institute revealed that 72 percent of Floridians agree or strongly agree that there should be criminal justice reform; 75 percent agree or strongly agree that the cost of incarceration is too high; 65 percent agree or strongly agree that there are too many nonviolent offenders in prison; and 74 percent favor a greater focus on rehabilitation.
Why do we arrest and prosecute people who break the law? Because our sense of justice demands accountability; punishment produces deterrence; we have an obligation to protect our communities from those who do us harm. All of these are good reasons and each is fundamental to the U.S. criminal justice system. But what about those of us who just make a mistake out of overwrought emotions, drug use, youthful exuberance, or in some cases an emerging mental illness? There are many people society would classify as “good citizens” that have broken then law and could have been arrested.. The growing knowledge about the societal cost of having an arrest record points to the need to find alternatives to arrest for those who commit a low-level offense, but who are not a threat to public safety.
In 1999 the Florida legislature established mandatory minimum sentences for drug trafficking. “Any person who knowingly sells, manufactures, delivers, or brings into this state, or who is knowingly in actual or constructive possession of, in excess of” a minimum quantity of various illegal drugs, is guilty of “trafficking” in those drugs. The 1999 bill established minimum sentences that escalated based on the quantity involved in the offense.
Sixteen years later, the evidence is clear. Florida’s mandatory minimum drug laws have not achieved their intended purposes, but have led to substantial negative unintended consequences. Given an inmate population hovering around 100,000, a corrections budget consistently over $2 billion, and a state prison system described by its own guards as a “ticking time bomb,” Florida lawmakers should reform Florida’s outdated and ineffective drug laws by restoring some discretion in low-level drug sentencing.
The revolving door of American’s prison systems has proven highly costly for taxpayers, society, and those for whom the system is supposedly aimed to rehabilitate: individuals who have served their time and are hoping to reintegrate themselves into society. The highest rate of “recidivism” (a relapse into crime and often, as a result, a return to incarceration) occurs within the first three years after a prisoner is released. Nationally, an average of nearly 68 percent of released prisoners recidivate during this time. For Florida, that number is around 33 percent, but when the timeframe is expanded to five years, Florida’s recidivism rate goes up to nearly 65 percent.
No doubt, over the past 20 years, the definition of what it means to be a conservative has evolved significantly with respect to the issue of criminal justice policy and the conservative movement’s approach to individuals who have been accused, tried, and adjudicated of crimes. As crime rates climbed throughout the 70s and 80s, a sentiment among conservatives that government needed to be “tough on crime” grew with them. As these policies began to take effect in the early 90s, crime rates began to decline. The violent crime rate fell approximately 50 percent from 758.2 in 1991 to 372.6 in 20151, the most recent year for which we have data. Property crime also fell around 50 percent from 5,140.2 in 1991 to 2487 in 2015.
This 2017 Sping Journal is dedicated to the vital task of reforming our criminal justice system. Why is this so important and what truly lies at the heart of conservatism?