12/4/2018 Criminal Justice Reform
The Florida Bar recently held a Criminal Justice Summit in Tampa. Attendees included judges, prosecutors, public defenders, private practitioners, and members of the Florida Legislature. After two days of speeches, presentations and interactive breakout sessions, Senator Jeff Brandes, Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice, analogized criminal justice reform as being like “a firefighter coming up to a house where every room is on fire and figuring out where to start.”
Florida legislators should start by reforming Florida’s antiquated view of the objectives of sentencing. Florida law provides:
This overly simplistic view of sentencing may have been popular when first adopted in 1997 but in 2018 a more nuanced sentencing strategy is required.
Every parent understands that the primary purpose for disciplining a child who has misbehaved has to be to change their behavior. For some children, and for some conduct, administering a punishment is necessary. For others, rewarding good behavior is more successful. For most, a combination of punishment and incentives provides the greatest chance to ensure a lasting change. What is true for our children who violate family rules is also true for criminal defendants who violate society’s rules.
It is unquestionably true that some crimes are so heinous; some criminals are so incorrigible that the only way to protect the public is to incapacitate the offender. But it is equally true that most people convicted of a crime will, at some point, complete their sentence. It would be irresponsible not to use every means available to change these individuals behavior so that when they exit the criminal justice system they are law-abiding, productive members of society.
12/7/2018 Were 5 Million Florida Voters Fooled?
On November 6th, over 5 million Floridians voted to restore the voting rights of convicted felons when they finish serving their sentence. They may not get what they thought they were voting for.
Amendment 4 was widely advertised as “automatic” restoration of voting rights. The language seemed clear enough, “any disqualification from voting arising from a felony conviction shall terminate and voting rights shall be restored upon completion of all terms of sentence including parole or probation.” After a convicted felon completes the sentence imposed by the court, their right to vote shall be restored. Simple, right? Maybe not.
Not every person wanting to vote may legally vote. First, they must register with the supervisor of elections in the county where they reside. Then, the supervisors must determine if the person registering is legally eligible to vote. During a statewide conference last week, county election supervisors questioned the director of the state Division of Elections about how to determine if convicted felons had finished their sentence and were therefore eligible to vote. Their questions went unanswered. Secretary of State Ken Detzner, who oversees the Division of Elections, doesn’t believe the supervisors’ questions should be answered until the legislature provides direction as to how Amendment 4 should be implemented.
There are serious questions. Are voting rights “automatically” restored or must new rules be written? If new rules are required, who must write them? Must all monetary obligations such as restitution, court costs, fines and fees imposed at the time of sentencing be paid in full before the sentence is deemed to be completed? Who is responsible for determining if all terms of the sentence have been completed? County supervisors of election, the director of the state Division of Elections, and the Secretary of State are unsure. One thing is certain. It is a felony for any person to submit false voter registration information. Until more answers are known, convicted felons registering to vote need to be very careful. They must avoid becoming repeat felony offenders when trying to restore their right to vote.
4/22/2019 Justice Denied
In February, a man was arrested for violating Bartow’s “Sit-Lie” and “Anti-Camping” ordinances. Both offenses can be punished by fines and jail sentences. His crime – sleeping on a sidewalk on a Saturday afternoon. The arrest report and jail booking sheet both listed his only address as “At Large, Bartow, FL”.
After spending the night in jail, he was released from jail and a future court date was scheduled. But there were a couple of problems. When he signed the Release Notification Form which was supposed to notify him of the date of his court appearance, the date was left blank. When the clerk of court mailed notice of his scheduled court date, it was sent to an address in Winter Haven. The address was for a non-residential building operated by Christian Family and Youth Services volunteers and providing food and other essentials to indigent persons. Having no notice of his court date, the defendant did not appear and the case was continued for another court date.
Notice of the new court date was again sent to the same address in Winter Haven and again, not surprisingly, the defendant did not appear. However, this time, a different judge took a different approach. Official court records reflect that no guilty plea was entered, no evidence was presented but the judge found the defendant guilty and imposed a sentence. The defendant was convicted of two criminal offenses without ever appearing or even knowing he was scheduled to appear in court.
In our criminal justice system, aren’t those accused of crimes presumed innocent? Doesn’t the government have to prove someone’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt? Isn’t the introduction of at least some evidence necessary before a court can find someone guilty? YES.
So, how did this happen? More importantly, why did this happen? Regrettably, in today’s justice system there is too much emphasis on simply getting the job done, and not enough on getting the job done correctly. It would be time consuming and involve some expense to properly serve this defendant. The more expeditious solution was to impose a fine, recognizing that it would likely never be paid, and close the case.
The court did not appoint an attorney to represent this defendant. Justice demanded that he have representation. The role of the Office of the Public Defender is to preserve and protect the rights of all Americans by defending the rights of each American. When expediency becomes more valued than our nation’s founding principles, freedom itself is in jeopardy.