Over the past several decades, overall crime across the U.S. has been going down, and the situation is no different in Florida; the state is at its lowest crime rate since the 1960s. Despite this decrease in crime the number of people with criminal records in Florida (and the nation) has continued to grow rapidly, which raises the question “what’s going on here?”
The answer isn’t a simple one. There are a lot of factors that play into the relationship between crime, sentencing, and incarceration. But one thing that tends to be left out of the discussion is the problem of over-criminalization. This term refers to the use of excessive penalties without taking the severity of the offense or the culpability of the accused into consideration.
While over-criminalization may seem like a rarity in today’s society, it isn’t. Floridians can be arrested for everything from feeding the homeless, due to city ordinances against “group feedings,” to releasing balloons, which technically violates the Florida Air and Water Pollution Act. Up until a few months ago, though rarely enforced, about 1 million Floridians could have been arrested for a second degree misdemeanor just for living with their significant others without being married—this 148 year-old cohabitation law was only just repealed in April 2016.
Now, how many people do you think were aware of these laws? And that’s the issue; of the thousands of offenses in Florida Statutes, many don’t require criminal intent, meaning that anyone could be convicted for violating a rule, even if they weren’t aware their actions were illegal. The problem with this approach is that it takes what would otherwise be undesired behavior and makes it into a punishable offense, often times using up valuable resources and causing severe consequences for accused offenders in the process.
Every year, law enforcement spends a portion of its valuable time enforcing rules that target people the public is mad at, instead of people they are afraid of. Some of those arrested get placed in local or even state correctional facilities wasting costly bed space on housing these individuals.
A calculation based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Florida Department of Corrections indicates that arresting and housing a violator of these types of offenses for a week could cost taxpayers more than $1,000. Making this issue even worse is the fact that people with convictions for these violations face continued consequences well after being released from custody.
According to the American Bar Association’s National Inventory of the Collateral Consequences of Conviction, Florida felons and misdemeanants face a combined 47,850 legal exclusions from employment and occupational/professional licensing opportunities. This is in addition to revocations of civil liberties, like voting, that all convicted felons face, and the fact that even a misdemeanor conviction can result in expulsion from state colleges and universities. All of these barriers can make resuming a normal life after conviction an insurmountable challenge.
Florida and its localities need to reevaluate the policies that have led to over-criminalization in order to promote equitable justice and help reduce strain on the law enforcement officers who issue these arrests, as well as on the state and local correctional facilities that house the violators of these laws and ordinances. Other states have implemented solutions, such as the decriminalization of certain third degree felonies and the expanded use of diversion tools, and seen success. Florida should evaluate and implement some of these options and reserve inmate beds for the real criminals.
More information on over-criminalization in Florida can be found here.
More information on barriers to employment for persons with criminal records can be found here.