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DeSantis panelists rejects criminal justice reforms, urge strict prison sentences

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[CARL JUSTE/MIAMI HERALD STAFF, SOUTH BAY, FLORIDA ---- Inmates in 2003 take a lunch break during their work shift. Imates manufacture a wide variety of goods, most used to be sold to the State, but now the non-profits are partnering with the private sector, and is seeking partners in order to install more businesses in prisons. 4 OF 10 PHOTOS

During a week that Congress passed historic criminal justice reforms, members of a committee advising Florida’s next governor strongly advised taking the opposite approach on Thursday.

Florida's falling crime rate — down more than 60 percent in the last two decades — is because of the tough-on-crime laws of the 1990s and should not be repealed, sheriffs and officials said.

"Please, as we move forward, do not retract the things that got us this low crime rate,” said Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd.

Judd called the idea of a broken criminal justice system, which was the talk in Washington this week, a "myth," and the sentiment was echoed by others.

Brevard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey said that being soft on crime will lead to "an immediate escalation of the crime rate."

And Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez agreed: "The correlation between the crime rate and the tougher sentencing is definitely there," he said.

The rhetoric was in sharp contrast to the events in Washington Thursday, where the House of Representatives overwhelming passed, with bipartisan support and the backing of President Donald Trump, sweeping criminal justice reforms that roll back some of the tough-on-crime laws of the 1990s.

The Senate passed the bill on Wednesday, and Trump is now set to sign a bill that will reduce "three strikes" penalties for some drug felonies and gives some federal prisoners a way to finish their sentences early.

But those were the kind of changes that members of the panel advising Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis warned about Thursday, in a room at Florida State University in Tallahassee. The committee will meet a few more times, then issue a list of recommendations to DeSantis, who takes office Jan. 8.

DeSantis, who was endorsed by Trump, has been quiet about his positions on criminal justice issues, and the committee's recommendations could be hugely influential on the former congressman.

If the committee recommends a hardline stance on crime, and DeSantis agrees, it could doom bipartisan efforts in Tallahassee over the past few years to pass criminal justice reforms similar to what passed in Washington this week.

Judd, who met with Trump earlier this year and is president of the Major County Sheriffs of America, lamented Thursday that he wasn't able to change the minds of federal lawmakers.

"I just finished a vicious fight to no avail," he said.

Judd started by talking about why he believes the crime rate has fallen in Florida, like it has nationwide. In the 1970s and 80s "the criminals and felons owned Florida," he said.

But lawmakers in Tallahassee didn't act until criminals started targeting tourists, he said.

Judd recounted that 17 tourists were murdered one year, that Europeans received travel warnings about visiting Florida and how Gov. Lawton Chiles sent police to protect tourists at rest stops. It wasn't until crime became an economic issue that lawmakers in Tallahassee decided to adopt tough minimum mandatory sentences, and the crime rate started to fall, Judd said.

 

Judd said that legislators have since forgotten that.

"There is no one in government there now that was participating and on the ground … when mandatory minimums took over Florida," he said.

No one refuted the narrative, and the conversation shifted to how to deal with the opioid crisis, crime-fighting technology and terrorism.

But it kept coming back to prisons and jails, and particularly how to treat children who commit crimes.

Former Highlands County Sheriff Susan Benton and former Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Christy Brodeur encouraged focusing on children who are a high risk to reoffend, pointing to recent programs that have been successful. (Benton noted that none of the more than 40 members on the panel, none were from the Department of Children and Families.)

But it was countered by people who said that children should be locked up more often, not less.

Former Pasco County Sheriff Bob White said jail time could be "a real deterrent" to prevent kids from committing more crimes.

"We might even stop a school shooting based on what we hear on that jail telephone," he said.

And the parents of two children who were killed in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas massacre this year had similar suggestions. The shooter, Nikolas Cruz, was disciplined in school but never arrested, despite being visited by police multiple times and having warnings about Cruz sent to the FBI.

Max Schachter, whose son, Alex, died in the shooting, said he hopes the committee will recommend undoing disciplinary guidance policies, like the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission report will do.

"I think we can all agree if we don’t give these children consequences, we’ll be giving them a much bigger problem when they grow up," Schachter said. "Our leniency policies and the culture to not arrest in our schools ... is leading to a very, very bad situation as we saw here."

Andrew Pollack, whose daughter, Meadow, was killed, said for some kids, it would be good to "introduce them to the judicial system at an early age."

"They put these diversionary programs to prevent the school to prison pipeline," Pollack said, "but at the end of the day, they ended up creating the school to prison pipeline."

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd is president of the National Sheriffs Association. He is president of the Major County Sheriffs of America.

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