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State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle

This article was authored by State Attorney Fernandez Rundle and appears on the Sarasota Tribune-Herald website.

The recent Sarasota Herald-Tribune editorial “Smart justice is a wise choice for Florida”  caught my attention for advocating for an intelligent approach to criminal justice reform. In Miami-Dade County, I have long championed a Smart Justice approach as my prosecutors work to protect the residents of our community.

The Herald-Tribune’s call for a closer look at Florida’s incarceration rates – and more specifically, state prison admission rates – makes great sense. After all, it costs Florida taxpayers more than $55 per day – or more than $22,000 annually – to house a single person in prison during this time of decreased statewide tax revenue due to the pandemic.  

“Miami-Style Smart Justice” is our effort to address offenders as individuals while employing an evidence-based outcome-oriented approach that:

  • Maximizes public safety.
  • Makes judicious use of incarceration space for violent offenders.
  • Minimizes unintended collateral consequences.
  • Reduces taxpayers’ costs. 

We support and offer a wide array of pre- and post-arrest diversion programs, participate in multiple treatment court programs and provide post-conviction services like our Second Chance program, which helps eligible individuals navigate the somewhat complicated process to have their records sealed or expunged.

Having been directly involved in the design and implementation of America’s first therapeutic drug court in 1989, I knew then and I know now that providing treatment as an alternative to prison for nonviolent offenders works.

Drug courts, for example, reduce recidivism while allowing once-addicted individuals an opportunity to return to their families and contribute to their communities. The success of our therapeutic drug court gave credibility to the concept of treatment courts throughout our criminal justice system and literally spawned a nationwide movement. Today there are more than 4,000 court-ordered drug treatment programs around the country, and America’s other treatment courts – such as mental health courts and veterans treatment courts – would not exist today if our drug court experiment had failed.

Our various programs have allowed us to reduce our reliance on incarceration in a safe and efficient manner. During the past 27 years, we’ve contributed to a nearly 70% reduction in our crime rate – and during Fiscal Year 2018-2019 we had the second-lowest jail incarceration rate and the lowest prison admissions rate in Florida.

During this 2021 legislative session, I am recommending updating Florida’s Truth in Sentencing law to recognize that public safety is the ultimate goal of sentencing – and to incorporate the lessons that we have learned over the past three decades about the broad-based value of prison inmate rehabilitation.

While incarceration remains the single most effective tool we have for incapacitating offenders, on its own it does little to change behavior without more to support it. In 2020 the Florida Department of Corrections reported that more than one-third of people sentenced to prison in Florida were returned to prison within five years of release.

Presently inmates must serve 85% of their sentences regardless of the crime they committed. I recommend providing inmates convicted of nonviolent, nonsexual, lower-level felony offenses with an opportunity to earn extra gain time by participating in appropriate “behind bars” programs and agreeing to serve the remainder of their sentences on conditional release and in re-entry programs.

I believe, based on our own experiences and decades of research, that we can improve the unacceptably high recidivism rate by better addressing offenders’ criminogenic needs, such as addiction and mental health.

Not only will this improve public safety, but presumably it will enable us to close a number of Florida prisons – saving tens of millions of dollars – and allow us to redirect previous resources to more productive and effective community re-entry programs for inmates.

Reducing sentences and providing services to formerly incarcerated individuals can help break the recognized cycle of intergenerational criminal behavior and further reduce crime long-term. The National Institute of Justice reported that children of incarcerated parents are on average six times more likely to become incarcerated themselves.

Being tough on crime makes for a great soundbite, but being smart about crime is a far more effective way to protect all of Florida’s residents. Our Miami-Style Smart Justice approach has allowed us to simultaneously reduce crime in our community, improve lives and save tax dollars. I believe our approach can do the same for all Floridians.

Katherine Fernandez Rundle is state attorney for the 11th Judicial Circuit of Florida, which covers Miami-Dade County.

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