Overhauling Florida’s Criminal Justice System

by

Patrick Finn-Shultz

Pax Christi Florida Council Member

The State of Florida now incarcerates over 100,000 prisoners in 139 prisons, with an operating budget of almost 2.7 billion dollars (http://www.oppaga.state.fl.us/profiles/1074/ ).  Florida is in the midst of a budget crisis and will need to justify why the criminal industrial complex is one of the few industries in Florida that continues to see tremendous annual growth while many other necessary areas of social concern flounder.  The reasons are many, but can be simplified by understanding the public’s willingness to write the state a blank check to remain “tough on crime.”  As with all governmental blank checks, businesses and corporations arise to assist in the spending.  The time has come for the State of Florida to re-assess our approach to criminal justice, and restructure the system to reflect policies that strengthen communities rather than policies of fear. 

However, the pending budget crisis is not the reason why Catholic Christians should demand an overhaul of the criminal justice system.  Catholics should reject the fear based policies that result in the over-incarceration of our minorities and poor.  Catholics have received the call from Christ to take up the task of social responsibility, and to find ways to heal the deep wounds of our communities through forgiveness, acceptance, and accountability.  A criminal justice system that equates justice with retributive punishment has no place in a Christian social philosophy.  We have been given the profound vocation to create a just society, but have replaced the hard work of this mission with the mere enactment of vengeance—a task that is not ours to carry out.  The hard work of creating a just society is possible through the assistance of a functional criminal justice system.  Such a system would necessarily include many elements that are either missing or provided inadequately today: substance abuse treatment, education and job training, mental health services, opportunities for participatory reparation, active healing for crime victims, opportunities for victims and community members to participate in the process, professional legal representation, mentoring programs, adequate re-entry programs, and a removal of prejudice from the entirety of the process from legislation to policing to the courts to the prisons.  Many of these elements are present in the criminal justice system, and we must applaud those who are working diligently in these areas.  Nonetheless, the overwhelming philosophy that drives our criminal justice system is based on punitive retribution and prevention through punishment.  We attempt to solve our social ills by forcing perpetrators of crime to waste years of their lives in a terrible place, and believe we simultaneously restore balance to the scales of justice.  This is not the solution Christians are called to support.

As a side note, many will point to the slight reduction of crime over the past twenty years as an indicator that the mass incarceration policies in place since the 70’s are working.  Many social scientists will admit that the skyrocketing incarceration rates have contributed in some measure to the recent fall in crime.  However, most social scientists also recognize that the system has surpassed the point of diminishing returns and has simply become bloated.  Arresting more and more people is having less and less an impact on crime rates in America.  We have reached the point where continuing on the same path with prove to be much more of a detriment than a benefit to our society.  On the other hand, the social sciences are reaching the consensus that introducing adequate rehabilitation programs within the jail/prison system along with the other components mentioned above, although requiring the difficult work of justice building, indubitably reduce recidivism and act to create stronger, safer communities.  Such programs simply do not fit into our current paradigm of criminal justice in America. 

The Christian call to criminal justice reform is particularly poignant because of the grossly disproportionate incarceration of minorities, immigrants, and the poor (African Americans comprise approximately 13% of the general population in America yet over half of the prison population).  These demographics act as a litmus test of the Christian foundation of our justice system, since their lack of social/economic/legal power places them at the apex of Christian social responsibility.  According to the mandate to care particularly for the least of our brothers and sisters, our current criminal justice system has clearly failed the test of Christian social responsibility. 
Although the direction of the criminal justice system in Florida continues to be towards a larger and more bloated system, the public sentiment is shifting in some important ways.  Evidence points towards people in Florida becoming increasingly disapproving of the way crime is handled, although there remains an unwavering support for policies that are “tough on crime.”  Now is the time to propose alternatives to policies that exclusively punish to solve our social problems, and a large portion of the population will be relieved to be offered a way out of the cycle of mass incarceration.  Please encourage your local and state legislators to support
 
The Second Chance for Children Act is being re-introduced in the 2010 session, offering a chance for parole to those juveniles sentenced to life without opportunity of parole for non-homocide cases.
http://www.examiner.com/x-7357-Atlanta-Criminal-Rehabilitation-Examiner~y2009m4d28-Second-chance-for-children-in-prison-legislation-killed


A link to the research about the Second Chance for Children Act in Florida:

http://www.law.fsu.edu/faculty/profiles/annino/Report_JuvenileLifeSentence.pdf

 
Website delineating racial bias in the criminal justice system:

http://www.justiceworks.info/index.php?module=pagemaster&PAGE_user_op=view_page&PAGE_id=41&MMN_position=54:4
 
The USCCB statement on the criminal justice system in America:
http://www.usccb.org/sdwp/criminal.shtml

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