By Jeff Borg
FLORIDIANS SUFFER AN UNFORGIVING criminal justice system. “We keep people in prison longer, and we incarcerate more of our young people,” says Raymer F. Maguire, IV, manager of the ACLU of Florida’s new Campaign for Criminal Justice Reform, launched together with the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“Voters need to understand the social and financial costs that occur when people go through the criminal justice system. They’re not able to get jobs. We get higher rates of recidivism.” But Maguire wants to reverse these trends.
DIRECT FILE. Young lives get jerked off track by direct file, when prosecutors charge juveniles in adult court, without the consent of a judge, parents, the defendant, or anyone else. “They do more harm than good,” says Maguire.
At least 60 percent of more than 12,000 juvenile suspects in adult courts during a recent five-year period had been charged with nonviolent crimes, The Miami Herald reported. An editorial argued, “The process gives prosecutors — instead of impartial juvenile judges — unbridled discretion to… charge 16- and 17-year-olds with felonies as adults.”
The new campaign will press the legislature to restrict direct file.
OVERINCARCERATION. We warehouse 100,000 of our fellow Floridians in prison, half for nonviolent property or drug crimes. Inmates learn new criminal skills in prison, but they lose opportunities to earn honest livings.
A big driver is mandatory minimums. “Truth-in-sentencing laws require prisoners to serve eighty-five percent,” says Maguire. “Judges have no discretion.
In 1990, prisoners served an average of thirty percent of their sentences. If judicial discretion were restored, we’d still see the worst offenders continue to serve as much time as they do today. But some nonviolent offenders — misdemeanors, minor felonies — would serve less time.”
Reforming truth-in-sentencing laws would incentivize inmates. “Prisoners can currently use gain time only to reduce their sentence by up to fifteen percent — earned by getting their GEDs, maintaining good behavior, doing good deeds…,” says Maguire.
“But truth-in-sentencing laws require them to serve eighty-five percent anyway. It’s a disincentive.” The campaign will lobby for more sentencing discretion.
CIVIL CITATIONS. One way to protect kids from prison is to issue civil citations instead of arresting them for minor infractions. “Counties that increase civil citations experience decreased recidivism and overall youth crime,” says Maguire.
“Typical offenses might be possession of marijuana under twenty grams, consumption of alcohol under twenty-one, minor theft, fighting, vandalism…,” he says. “A young person could be diverted, admit fault, apologize, do community service, and participate in counseling.”
The campaign will lobby localities to use more civil citations in lieu of arresting adults for misdemeanors and to get youth civil citations up to 75 percent statewide — they’re in the mid 40s now.
ACLU of Florida and six other reform organizations have just released a comprehensive study of civil citations
(aclufl.org/resources/stepping-up-2016). It found that arresting for youthful misbehavior led to more crime, while employing civil citations in 75 percent of cases would free up $62 million to combat crime and to improve outcomes for nearly 7,000 young people. The report recognized Miami-Dade among the top-performing counties and school districts.
TACTICS. Until the November election, Maguire works as deputy campaign manager at United for Care, the Amendment 2 campaign for medical marijuana. Then he becomes a full-timer with the ACLU campaign.
“We will use a mix of lobbying, public education, and grassroots and grasstops organizing,” he says. “We’ll involve ACLU members, community and religious leaders, former elected officials, directors of nonprofits, and other influencers.
“We are working on developing our campaign strategy and building our coalition. Reforming Florida’s criminal justice system is a big task. It will be a multiyear effort.”
Jeff Borg is a board member of the ACLU of Florida and its Greater Miami Chapter.