- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:

Dec. 13

News-Journal, Daytona Beach, Florida, on state’s pension:

Gov. Rick Scott Wednesday named Julie Jones as secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections. When she takes the helm of the nation’s third-largest penal system Jan. 5, she will become the department’s seventh secretary in the last eight years. That is indicative of the deep-set problems in the DOC that go beyond whoever is next to pass through the turnstile in the secretary’s office.

Florida currently incarcerates more than 100,000 prisoners at a cost of more than $2.3 billion a year. Both numbers are projected to increase over the next five years. That will create additional pressures on a system that already is struggling to maintain safety and order. Inmate deaths this year have hit a 10-year high, with several occurring under suspicious conditions. There also are widespread reports of guards physically abusing prisoners.

In fact, the instability at the top may be a contributing factor to the continuing erosion in the foundation. No one in the corrections bureaucracy will take the latest secretary’s reform proposals seriously if they can expect a new person to be appointed a few months down the line. Instead of jumping from scandal to scandal by scapegoating another DOC head, the state must make wholesale changes to the system.

Thankfully, there is a proven road map to reform for Florida to follow, one that not only will clean up abuses but also will save taxpayers money.

The Project for Accountable Justice, a bipartisan think tank affiliated with Florida State University, recently issued a report outlining five recommendations to improve the prison system. They adopted many practices already successfully implemented in other states, including Texas and Georgia - neither of which are known for being bleeding hearts on incarceration.

They include:

Creating an independent commission responsible for oversight of all Florida state correctional facilities. Members would have unfettered access to any facility, employee or inmate.

Unlinking the DOC secretary’s term in office from the governor’s, which would create stability in the position and reduce political influences.

Participating in the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI), a data-driven examination process used by other states that can inform policy and budget decisions.

Improving professionalism among guards by increasing their salaries, training opportunities and hiring standards.

Expediting the implementation of performance measurements and management.

Georgia’s JRI has resulted in a 7 percent reduction in that state’s prison population and a 17 percent reduction in new prison commitments. The Project for Accountable Justice estimates that an equivalent reduction in Florida would save taxpayers $120 million a year.

The other reforms would work toward changing the culture in a system that has tolerated abuse and resisted accountability. The project’s report argues that while the majority of the 20,000 DOC employees are honorable and dedicated professionals, many of whom work in difficult and dangerous conditions, “the infection of even a few results in a tyranny of the minority, casting a dark shadow over the entirety of the agency.”

The effects aren’t felt just inside the prison walls. As the project’s report notes, between 2012 and 2013 the DOC released just as many prisoners as it added - more than 33,000. How many of those incarcerated in an abusive, corrupt system returned to their communities as rehabilitated, law-abiding neighbors, and how many as criminals further hardened by their experiences behind bars?

No matter how tough and capable Julie Jones is, she can’t fix this on her own. She will need the support of Gov. Scott and the Legislature to create outside, independent means of cleaning up the Department of Corrections.




Dec. 16

Miami Herald on prison reform:

A year of turmoil is ending for Florida’s troubled Department of Corrections - and the New Year may ring in with a U.S. Department of Justice probe.

Sadly, that’s likely to be what the department needs to come clean and move forward from its recent scandals.

After Miami Herald investigations this summer uncovered suspicious inmate deaths and widespread abuse by guards, Corrections Secretary Michael Crews fired 32 guards and employees, instituted a new code of conduct and asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate, which has led to federal inquiries that will likely result in a full-fledged investigation. Then it became time for Crews to retire.

Just as new DOC head Julie Jones takes over, details emerged this week about a 2009 inmate death, that of Bernadette Gregory, 42, at Lowell Correctional Institution. In a news release Tuesday night, DOC defended itself against the Herald stories, saying two correctional officers were punished in Gregory’s death. However, their penalty had to do with not following procedure, not her death. Basically, DOC is still ducking the issue.

Gregory was found hanging in a cell. Prison authorities say that in 11 minutes, while handcuffed and relying on a wheelchair to get around, Gregory tied a double knot in a sheet, twisted it several times around her top bunk and hanged herself, the Herald reported.

Her family told prison officials that Gregory told them she was being threatened by corrections officers. Records show that in the days before her death, the inmate filed a written complaint alleging that a Captain Greer had beaten her, hitting her over the head with a radio.

Records show she repeatedly complained of officers ridiculing her and filing false disciplinary reports to force her into solitary confinement. Gregory knew her treatment was wrong: “I will not sleep on this. I will follow through to the end and press charges,” she wrote in her complaint on July 18, 2009. She was dead four days later. Yet apparently, no one thought of connecting her death to her complaints. The officers reprimanded were cited only for “not following procedure and failing to protect an inmate,” the department said Tuesday.

In the most shocking death that occurred in 2012, Darren Rainey collapsed in a scalding shower, where he was locked up after defecating in his cell at Dade Correctional Institution in South Miami-Dade.

Deaths of children in state care usually arouse an outcry and demands for change, but there is less sympathy for prison inmates. That’s understandable because children are deemed helpless, but there is no excuse for failure to treat inmates humanely.

We could look away, but the prison system is ours. Floridians pay for the incarceration of 101,000 inmates under DOC care to the tune of $2.1 billion a year. Ours is the third-largest prison system in the country.

In a perfect world, inmates would be rehabilitated. Failure to meet that goal leads to a higher rate of repeat offenses among the 87 percent of inmates who eventually get released. If those former prisoners aren’t ready to be re-integrated into society as law-abiding citizens, everyone loses.

With a new year looming and the accomplished Jones now at the helm, there should be an institutional makeover at the department to put an end to the unjust deaths of Florida prison inmates.




Dec. 17

Tampa (Florida) Tribune on Jeb Bush:

It was typical Jeb Bush. Less than a week after the media tried to tatter his political appeal, the former Florida governor announced he was “actively” exploring a presidential campaign.

Floridians know that Bush is not going to be cowed by the press or political naysayers. He doesn’t base decisions on polls or what’s fashionable. He follows his own course, based on his core beliefs.

If Bush decides to join the presidential race, he’ll be a compelling candidate - a strong, thoughtful leader with an impressive record of accomplishments.

And he would bring badly needed gravitas to Washington. He digs deep into issues and cares more about policy than politics.

The attacks on Bush, no doubt, will escalate, now that he has signaled he is serious about a presidential run.

A report in Bloomberg last week claimed “Jeb Bush has a Mitt Romney problem” because of his sophisticated business deals.

It detailed Bush’s involvement with offshore private equity funds that some say act as a tax haven. He has business ties to Chinese companies.

Americans will decide if such matters are important to them, but there is nothing illegal or unethical about his investments.

That Bush, after his public service, became an enterprising businessman who made a lot of money, in our view, only adds to his qualifications.

It is hardly surprising that this champion of free enterprise would take advantage of financial opportunities. The nation might benefit from a president who is more enthusiastic, and astute, about capitalism.

Bush also is being attacked from the right - which is puzzling given his proven commitment to tax cuts, lean government, public education accountability and personal freedom.

This was, after all, the governor who said at his second inaugural address: “Let state government trust Florida’s communities to confront their everyday challenges, to advance the ideas that will shape our state. The best and brightest ideas do not come from the state capital, but from the untapped human capital that resides in our diverse communities.”

Bush refuses to be bullied into pledging never to raise any tax at any time.

He surely understands that putting the nation’s fiscal house in order, and cutting taxes for most Americans, might require a few increases in certain fees or selected taxes. But anyone who thinks he would countenance overall tax hikes or government expansion doesn’t know Bush or his record.

We’re confident his focus as president would be on making government less of a drain on families and the economy, just as it was as governor.

The Republicans don’t lack for other appealing potential candidates, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. Bush may yet decide a presidential campaign is not for him.

But you can be sure Bush’s decision will not be based on polls or media speculation.

During an interview last weekend, Bush said, “If you run with big ideas and then you’re true to those ideas … you can move the needle.”

Jeb Bush moved the needle in Tallahassee. We believe he could move it in Washington.



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