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Florida editorial roundup

July 17, 2019

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:

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July 17

The Orlando Sentinel on conditions for inmates and workers at state prisons:

We know a few things about the tape that appears to show an inmate getting pummeled in the courtyard of a Lake County state prison.

It looks bad. Someone on the ground is swarmed by lots of correctional officers, some of them throwing punches. The incident, surreptitiously recorded by an inmate with a contraband cellphone at Lake Correctional Institution, goes on for five minutes. The guards have been reassigned, away from inmates, and the state has begun an investigation.

We don’t know how or why it started. We don’t know what the correctional officers might offer as a justification. We don’t know their work history. And the state hasn’t confirmed the identity of the inmate who was on the ground.

As many times as the media and public have jumped to wrong conclusions in the recent past (Jussie Smollett, anyone?), it’s important to get some more information before trying to understand — or comment on — what happened.

But if the guards were in the wrong, is it really surprising that Florida’s prison system isn’t attracting the cream of the crop?

It stinks to be an inmate or a prison guard in Florida.

The Florida Department of Corrections pays starting trainees about $30,150 a year, less than $15 an hour. That’s what Disney World employees will soon make for serving churros to friendly tourists. Once certified, starting correctional officers make $33,500 per year, about $16 an hour. The Miami Herald noted in a 2017 article that officers went a decade without a raise.

Bad pay doesn’t excuse abuse, but considering the challenges and dangers of the job, the compensation for correctional officers in Florida is embarrassing.

Low pay might explain why the number of open positions for officers with the state Department of Corrections grew from 554 to 720 between 2006 and 2015. The vacancies grew even as the total number of jobs for officers in the prison system dropped by about 2,000. Fewer overall jobs should mean fewer vacancies. It gets worse.

During that same period, Florida’s inmate population increased by some 11,500 people, which meant a shrinking number of officers was guarding a growing inmate population.

Prison officials testified earlier this year that staffing shortages were forcing some correctional officers to work 16-hour shifts, and wardens pegged turnover rates at 30-50%. The overall turnover rate as of June was 32%, about one in every three officers.

A 2015 state study of the prison system found the corrections staff was plagued with inexperienced officers and a supervisory staff spread too thin. It also found that more than 10% of the officers hadn’t completed their basic training.

The study also had this important finding that may end up applying to the Lake incident: ?...one of (the Department of Corrections’) more important policies, use of force, was found to be confusing, unnecessarily complicated, and lacking clear direction for when force should, or should not be deployed. We recommend this policy be revised.” State corrections officials did not provide the current policy, nor would they say whether it had been revised since that report.

The staffing issue has gotten so bad that the state passed a law this year lowering the minimum age for state corrections officers from 19 to 18. Florida’s not the first to do so, and 18-year-olds can join the military to take on even greater responsibility, so it’s not a crazy idea. It does show how desperate the state has become to fill jobs.

Guarding is difficult in Florida, and so is life as an inmate.

Not that prison time should be a vacation, but inmates are increasingly menaced by gangs. Correctional officers are, too. In one 2017 incident, seven guards were injured in South Florida during a melee involving gangs. A couple of months later, all of Florida’s prisons went on a lockdown because of threats of violence.

In April, four prison guards joked on social media about harming inmates. In May, several Florida inmates sued the state ... for putting people in solitary confinement for prolonged periods. That same month the Florida Times-Union reported on a culture of violence and abuse aimed at inmates by officers at the Santa Rosa Correctional Institution.

Part of the problem is Florida’s eagerness to lock people up — about 100,000 in prisons across the state at last count. The state made some small progress through a criminal justice reform package passed by the Legislature earlier this year.

It’ll keep some out of prison by raising the bar for felony theft from $300 to $750. It’ll keep some others out by cutting people a little more slack for ticky-tack violations of their probation. And ex-felons will be able to get occupational licenses more easily.

There’s always a “but” with Florida, and in this case it was the state chickening out on reducing the mandatory amount of time a felon has to serve in prison — and therefore, the prison population — from 85% of the sentence to 65%.

The latest state budget had some good news for the Department of Corrections, with a 6 percent increase to $2.7 billion. But (there’s that word again) there’s no pay increase in the budget for correctional officers. Again.

Florida’s Legislature has demonstrated the ability to get things done when it wants to. What it should want is a far better prison system that respects and protects both the guards and the guarded.

Online: https://www.orlandosentinel.com

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July 12

The Tampa Bay Times on using solar energy in the state:

The Sunshine State? Not for solar energy. Florida lawmakers have blocked those efforts for years, protecting the investor-owned utilities at consumers’ expense. No wonder voters are taking the petition route to try to change the Florida Constitution and deregulate the electrical power industry in a way that could make solar more accessible and affordable. Changing the constitution is not the best way to create a smarter statewide energy policy. But the movement reflects the public’s frustration with having such an abundant resource so out of reach.

Florida’s failure to realize its solar potential was highlighted again in a report last week by the New York Times, which chronicled the nagging barriers consumers still face in tapping this clean energy source. While the state’s investor-owned utilities have been expanding their own production of solar, the newspaper reported, Florida is still one of only a handful of states that prohibit the sale of solar electricity directly to consumers unless the provider is a utility. And many factors restraining the market continue to hold back consumers, from a state rule requiring expensive insurance policies for home solar arrays to practices by the utilities aimed at frustrating solar customers.

“I’ve had electric utility executives say with a straight face that we can’t have solar power in Florida because we have so many cloudy days,” Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, told the paper.

While Florida leads the nation when it comes to the expansion of the utilities’ own solar arrays, the Times reported, solar still accounted for only 1 percent of electricity generation in Florida last year, far less than its double-digit share in California and several northeast states. Florida’s utilities have spent tens of millions of dollars in recent years on political spending aimed at blocking any loosening of their grip on the market. As the Times reported, Florida utilities make money at virtually every turn - producing power, transmitting and selling it - and they have a vested interest in preserving the status quo. That’s another reason why Florida lawmakers have frustrated efforts across a broader front to expand the use of renewable energy sources.

State regulators opened a window last year by determining that one of the country’s largest residential solar companies, San Francisco-based Sunrun, was allowed to lease solar energy equipment for homes in Florida. The company charges a fixed amount for the equipment, which is leased for 20 years. Advocates hailed the move as a step toward breaking down the up-front cost of solar, making it more affordable for many families to realize long-term savings. Across the state, communities have launched dozens of solar co-ops, enabling homeowners to receive discounted pricing when they hire installers by using their bulk purchasing power. A third opened in Hillsborough County in April.

Consumer advocates are pushing a constitutional amendment proposed for the 2020 ballot that would allow Floridians to pick their electricity providers from a competitive market or give them more options to produce solar energy themselves. As of Wednesday, the proposal had almost 340,000 signatures of the 766,200 it needs to make the ballot. The ballot language still must be approved by the Florida Supreme Court, with oral arguments scheduled for Aug. 28.

Policy choices are best left to the political arena. But the constitutional amendment effort shows hundreds of thousands of Floridians want more energy choices. Solar is a natural, promising resource for Florida that should shape the state’s energy future.

Online: http://www.tampabay.com/

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July 11

The Gainesville Sun on Florida interstate highway safety:

Six months after a fiery crash on Interstate 75 killed seven people, including five children on a church trip to Disney World, little has changed in improving safety on the interstate.

Florida Highway Patrol troopers are patrolling more through the use of special details, as The Sun recently reported. But as anyone who has driven recently on the stretch of I-75 passing through Alachua and Marion counties knows, drivers are still speeding, traffic still gets congested regularly and the potential for deadly crashes is still high.

As tragic as the deaths in the Jan. 3 crash were, they should have come as no surprise. After all, congestion and safety issues on I-75 were the focus of a task force of area officials formed nearly four years ago to study the problems and develop solutions.

In 2016, the group issued commonsense recommendations on ways to improve safety and the flow of travelers and goods. They included adding truck-only lanes, improving and expanding nearby roadways to keep vehicles off the interstate, providing more long-distance travel options such as intercity bus services and passenger rail, and expanding freight rail capacity and connectivity.

The group rejected a Florida Department of Transportation plan for a new highway. And yet during this past session of the state Legislature, lawmakers ignored the task force’s recommendations and instead approved a plan for three new toll roads through rural parts of Florida.

Residents of Alachua and Marion counties received good news recently that one of the roads, an extension of the Suncoast Parkway 150 miles north to the Georgia border, isn’t planned to pass through either county. But the project’s impact on some of the most extensive green spaces left in Florida should still concern everyone, especially its potential to harm springs, wetlands and the aquifer.

The cost of the toll roads is another concern. The Legislature committed, and Gov. Ron DeSantis agreed, to spending hundreds of millions of dollars just for planning purposes over the next few years. The overall price tag is estimated at more than $1 billion, but no one really knows for sure and there are no assurances that tolls will cover the tab.

The money would be better spent making improvements to existing roads and other more immediate measures to improve safety. The FHP patrols are a good start, but Alachua County commissioners should find a way to fund Sheriff Sadie Darnell’s request for a traffic unit dedicated to I-75.

Other fixes might include the use of technology to monitor speeds and carpool lanes to reduce congestion. Improvements to mass transit and area roads that provide an alternative to the interstate would help. Truck-only lanes would make sense if done in a way to accommodate an expected shift to autonomous trucks in the years ahead.

January’s high-profile crash should have shocked officials into taking new steps to improve safety. Officials need to work to prevent similar tragedies by improving conditions on I-75 as soon as possible, rather than wasting time and money on a toll-roads boondoggle.

Online: https://www.gainesville.com

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