TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Tough on crime laws of the 1980s and ‘90s have put a significant strain on Florida taxpayers. These policies, especially mandatory minimum sentences, have forced judges to place low-risk, nonviolent offenders behind bars when many pose little or no risk to public safety and have cost taxpayers millions of dollars in a state whose corrections system is already facing understaffing and funding issues.
To alleviate these problems, the latest Florida TaxWatch report recommends the Florida Legislature create a “Judicial Safety Valve,” permitting a judge to exercise judicial discretion and deviate from a defined mandatory minimum sentence. This will allow judges the authority to sentence individual offenders based on the facts of their cases, when warranted, and restore a necessary element of discretion to Florida’s one-size-fits-all policy. A Judicial Safety Valve would result in reduction of sentences for low-risk offenders, saving Florida a significant amount of money and enhancing public safety.
There are already state and federal blueprints for Florida to follow. Numerous states have enacted their own safety valves, including New York, Minnesota and Connecticut; in addition to a number of bills that have been filed in the United States Congress, which have sought to expand the federal Judicial Safety Valve established in 1994 for first time, non-violent, federal drug offenders.
“A Judicial Safety Valve would allow Florida to maintain public safety, lower recidivism and realize substantial cost-savings,” said Florida TaxWatch President and CEO Dominic M. Calabro. “Expanding judicial discretion will lessen the chance of low-risk offenders being given outrageous sentences and will decrease recidivism rates by ensuring the sanctions given will be those that best address the root causes of offenders’ criminal behavior.”
“Punishment should fit the crime. Giving judges additional discretion when sentencing low-risk offenders would significantly improve Florida’s correctional system. Such judicial safety valves prevent the deep injustices that occur when mandatory sentences impose punishments that far exceed what is fair and just under the circumstances. Avoiding such injustices is in everyone’s best interest.” said Florida TaxWatch Center for Smart Justice Co-Chairman and former Supreme Court Justice, Kenneth Bell. “The creation of a judicial safety valve would decrease recidivism, save Florida taxpayer money and allow our correctional system to focus on keeping our worst offenders behind bars, all without compromising public safety.”
The TaxWatch report also noted that reducing the length of stay for nonviolent offenders would lower the daily average prison population by 2,600 and result in a cost-avoidance of up to $50 million each year. Notably, a recent national survey of crime survivors found that most victims prefer shorter prison sentences and spending on prevention and rehabilitation to prison sentences that keep people in prison for as long as possible.
“Florida’s prison population is the third largest in the United States and continues to rise. New research demonstrates that long prison sentences are neither effective at reducing recidivism or consistent with victims’ priorities for safety and justice policy,” said Alliance for Safety and Justice Director of Policy, Research and Administration, Brian Elderbroom. “Policies that provide judges greater discretion at sentencing can help reduce the prison population and free up taxpayer dollars for investments in new safety priorities that work better than one-size-fits-all mandatory minimum sentences.”
“The implementation of a Judicial Safety Valve in Florida will give judges more flexibility in sentencing low-level drug offenders. Many times, the facts of a case simply do not require a stringent punishment but judges are unable to lessen sentences due to constraints in the law,” said Florida State Senator Rob Bradley, who represents the 7th District, which includes Alachua, Bradford, and Clay Counties. “This causes many people to serve unnecessarily long sentences, when a shorter stay in a cell or rehabilitation would have been more suitable. While we need to continue to lock up the most dangerous among us, we should seek to apply the most appropriate sentences for those low-risk drug offenders who pose little to no threat to public safety.”
For the full report, click here.