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Florida editorial roundup

December 26, 2018

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:

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Dec. 22

The Florida Times-Union on the need for smart justice reforms in Florida:

Smart justice — the principle that the criminal justice system can maintain public safety at less cost — has wide bipartisan support in Washington.

But we’re still waiting for the concept to come alive in Jacksonville and the state of Florida.

The First Step Act was signed by President Donald Trump Friday after passing by an overwhelming 87 to 12 vote in the U.S. Senate and overwhelming support in the House.

The Washington Post called it “the most far-reaching overhaul of the criminal justice system in a generation.”

The new law involves a series of reforms, such as providing more rehabilitation programs. It also would shorten some mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent offenses and give judges more discretion.

Support from Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, was a strong factor in gaining support from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for this series of federal criminal justice reforms.

Outgoing Florida Attorney Gen. Pam Bondi is among the leaders of a bipartisan group of 38 state attorneys supporting the First Step Act.

Conservatives like the Koch Brothers and the Fraternal Order of Police like the cost savings while liberals like the ACLU like the emphasis on rehabilitating prisoners. After all, the vast majority of prisoners will be released at some point.

Jacksonville’s own Kevin Gay, the head of Operation New Hope, has been a regular visitor at the White House, speaking to Kushner about the issue. Operation New Hope, which Gay founded, has gained national prominence for its success in giving ex-convicts the skills and training to be gainfully employed.

While the federal bill only affects federal prisons, let’s hope the impact ripples down to Florida and Jacksonville.

Politicians have been so afraid of being accused of being soft on crime that a prison building boom has been underway for decades, and the United States has turned into the world’s biggest per capita jailer.

There are too many people held in local jails for misdemeanors. For instance, as Ruth Ann Hepler has written, of people arrested in Duval County for misdemeanors in 2016, only 13.21 percent were released on own recognizance. That implies that the vast majority were flight risks. Not likely. A large number of them were unable to post cash bail.

This is why local civil rights attorney William Sheppard’s firm charges that the cash bail system violates the rights of poor defendants to equal protection under the law.

There are too many people held in state prisons for nonviolent crimes who could be released under state supervision without endangering the public and with a better chance of rehabilitation.

Many of the imprisoned are behind bars for drug offenses and have mental health issues.

Cities like Miami and San Antonio have set up separate facilities that treat the drug and mental health issues less expensively and more successfully.

In fact, the state of Texas has been able to close prisons with such programs while still protecting public safety. Georgia is another state that has embraced smart justice reforms.

In the Times-Union’s interviews with candidates for the Legislature, we receive few promises for action on smart justice reform.

Florida has been a laggard, though there have been a few successes.

For instance the Florida Legislature passed the first-in-the-nation Adult Civil Citation program that will allow adults to be diverted to programs and not be burdened with a criminal record for the rest of their lives, wrote Barney Bishop in the Times-Union. Bishop is CEO of the Florida Smart Justice Alliance.

With the leadership of State Attorney Melissa Nelson and Sheriff Mike Williams, civil citations are being used more often for juvenile offenses, sparing them from entering the school-to-jail pipeline.

The Times-Union Editorial Board has long supported smart justice reforms with the rubric — saving money, saving lives. The two goals can go together.

America’s prison-industrial complex is out of control. Smart justice reforms are needed for Jacksonville and the state.

Online: https://www.jacksonville.com/

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Dec. 22

The Miami Herald on the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s management of contracts:

Mention the Federal Emergency Management Agency in this state, and you’re sure to get a variety of responses. For each person who cheers FEMA for having helped them rebuild after a hurricane, you’re likely to meet one or more who waited too long for help to arrive. According to government auditors, those complainers have a legitimate gripe.

The Government Accountability Office this month released a report titled “2017 Disaster Contracting: Action Needed to Better Ensure More Effective Use and Management of Advance Contracts.” Translation: FEMA isn’t managing contracts with relief providers very well.

FEMA signs advance contracts with companies to provide help after a disaster. It’s a smart way to do things. During the recovery, especially in the first few days, if the agency had to negotiate a bunch of contracts on the fly, it would slow down aid delivery and probably cost more. If the deal is sealed in advance, companies can quickly and cost-effectively deliver food, water, tents, blankets, communications equipment, debris-removing machinery, etc.

At least that’s the theory. The GAO found that in practice it isn’t working well.

In 2017, advance contracts locked in $4.5 billion to Hurricanes Irma, Harvey and Maria as well as California wildfires. But FEMA consistently failed to ensure that it got what it paid for. According to the GAO, the agency relied on outdated management strategies, trained its contracting officers poorly, and did not communicate clearly with states and localities about what was available.

Those flaws led to contracts being underutilized in Florida, Puerto Rico and other places. Taxpayers, meanwhile, paid for services and relief efforts that didn’t happen.

For example, after Hurricane Irma, contractors who were supposed to remove debris in Florida did not arrive. They had also contracted to provide service in Texas, and Hurricane Harvey had all their equipment tied up.

The GAO concluded that miscommunication was a big factor in problems, especially between the feds, states and localities. Local officials on the ground simply did not know what contracted services were available because FEMA had not communicated it well.

This isn’t a new problem. The GAO wrote a similar report in 2006 after Hurricane Katrina. It issued a supplemental report in 2015 noting that FEMA was still mismanaging advance contracts.

And here we are three years later, and the problems persist. After more than a decade, it’s hard to hope that FEMA has the ability and willingness to reform.

Reform, then, must come from outside the agency, and that means Congress or the White House must intervene.

It would help if Congress knew exactly what was going on, but even in that FEMA has messed up. Auditors discovered FEMA provided incomplete information about advance contracts in its reports to lawmakers.

The GAO’s report has nine achievable recommendations about ways to improve FEMA’s advance contracting system. They include modernizing contracting strategies and developing better communications protocols.

With Democrats taking control of the House of Representative in January, reforming FEMA’s contract management is a prime opportunity for bipartisan collaboration.

Surely members of both parties can agree that delivering disaster relief efficiently and cost-effectively is a priority.

Online: https://www.miamiherald.com/

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Dec. 21

The Tampa Bay Times on companion bills dealing with texting while driving or talking on a handheld phone:

As Florida’s roads get busier and busier, distracted driving is more dangerous than ever. It’s past time to crack down on texting while driving, and next year should be the year the Florida Legislature finally makes it a primary offense so drivers could be pulled over and ticketed without having committed another violation first. That would surely reduce the mayhem of driving in Florida.

Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, and Rep. Jackie Toledo, R-Tampa, have filed companion bills (SB 76, HB 107) to make texting while driving or talking on a handheld phone a primary offense. The research — and it’s voluminous — is clear. Texting or even talking on a cell phone while driving is incredibly dangerous, even more so than drunken driving, according to some studies. Last year, Florida saw more than 50,000 accidents caused by distracted drivers, and they have increased 25 percent since 2013, when an ineffective ban on texting while driving became law. In 2017, more than 200 people died on Florida’s roads because of distracted drivers.

Although texting behind the wheel has been illegal for years, it is still only a secondary offense. That means officers cannot ticket a driver who is otherwise obeying the law. Florida is so far behind the curve on this vital safety issue that it’s one of only seven states that have failed to make texting a primary offense.

Three diversions contribute to distracted driving: Taking your eyes off the road, taking your hands off the wheel and taking your mind away from the task of driving. The third is the most dangerous, because people are often not even aware of their distraction. Many people, particularly younger drivers, think they can multi-task, but they’re wrong. It’s impossible. Trying to do two things at once just means that the brain is constantly flitting back and forth between the tasks, and doing neither well. Just as it’s not possible to read and carry on a conversation at the same time, it’s impossible to drive and to text, even hands-free, and still focus on the road.

These bills would only prohibit drivers from holding smart phones but would still allow hands-free talking on the phone — and possibly hands-free texting — by using Bluetooth, voice recognition and similar technology. There is a large and growing body of research that even hands-free use is unsafe because of the brain’s distraction, so some might argue that a total ban on talking and texting is best. But as a practical matter it’s far easier for an officer to catch a driver red-handed if he is actually holding a smart phone, and that would lessen privacy concerns as officers would have no need to scroll through a driver’s texts for proof of time sent. The bills would keep a driver’s wireless communications out of evidence from law enforcement unless a crash resulted in injury or death.

Rep. Emily Slosberg, a Boca Raton Democrat who lost her twin sister in a car crash, also has filed a bill that is worth consideration. That legislation (HB 45) would require an officer to note a driver’s race when issuing a citation, and the information that would go into a database. If racial profiling were occurring, as some fear might happen, that database would make it clear.

Making texting while driving a primary offense could change behavior, just as seat-belt laws and tougher DUI laws did. Drivers who wouldn’t dream of drinking and driving are still texting and chatting on their phones. They should know better, and they shouldn’t need a law to keep them from doing it whether they’re physically touching a phone or not.

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

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