- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:


Feb. 13

The Daytona Beach News-Journal on the state’s open-records laws:

One little word can cast a lot of shade. And when lawmakers are tampering with Florida’s Sunshine laws, shade is bad news.

Lawmakers want to weaken one of the most potent provisions in the state’s open-records statutes - the law that puts public agencies on the hook for attorney’s fees if they deny access to records. Under the law, when a judge finds that an agency wrongfully withheld records, the person requesting records is entitled to attorney’s fees. That law is meant to make state and local governmental officials hesitate before denying access to records that should be public.

A bill pending in the state House would change one word - from “shall” to “may” - making it optional for judges to award fees. Proponents of the legislation say it’s necessary to stop a “cottage industry” of provocateurs that try to strangle governments with repetitive requests and lawsuits, but they’ve failed to prove that threat is significant enough to hamstring the vast majority of Floridians who just want access to records. Bill advocates, including the Florida League of Cities and Deltona City Commissioner Heidi Herzberg, president of the Volusia League of Cities, would also like to downplay the chilling effect this legislation would have. But they can’t deny the implied threat to citizens who challenge their governments.

That’s not the only problem with the legislation (HB 1021). It would give governments five business days to comply with records requests before any legal action could be taken - even if the records could be produced in a few minutes. And it would require requests to be addressed to the “custodian” of a particular record, but doesn’t require agencies to identify who that custodian may be.

That last provision is giving State Rep. Dwayne Taylor, D-Daytona Beach, second thoughts about the bill, he told The News-Journal’s Frank Fernandez last week. State Rep. Fred Costello, R-Ormond Beach, was firmer in his opposition, saying in an email that he would probably vote no on HB 1021. But Thursday, he said he probably would support compromise language that has been amended to the Senate version of the bill, SB 1220.

The Senate legislation is certainly better, because it restores the mandate for attorney’s fees - but it would add a big, flashing “unless” to the law, saying that judges could deny fees if they found a request was “frivolous, malicious, or … intended to harass the agency.” Here’s the problem with that language: The intention behind a public-records request should be moot. If the records requested are public, they should be provided, without hesitation or concern about the requester’s motives. The Senate language invites agencies to speculate whether they could get away with arguing that a particular records request was made frivolously, when they should be focusing on compliance.

There’s a better solution. Barbara Petersen, president of Florida’s First Amendment Foundation, suggests the state should set up a clearinghouse for records disputes. Citizens whose records requests are denied could be required to request intervention from that office before filing suit, she says. Similar agencies are working well in other states. “We’re not talking a huge administrative complex program, and we’re actually not talking about a lot of money,” she says - in fact, the Legislature could probably deputize the governor’s Office of Open Government or the attorney general’s open government mediation program to handle disputes.

Such an agency could prove a legitimate stumbling block for gadflies and attorneys who abuse the public-records process, while providing advocates for citizens whose legitimate requests are stymied. If lawmakers are serious about preserving access, that’s the course to follow.




Feb. 12

The Miami Herald on state death penalty law:

When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Florida’s death penalty law last month, the state was left without a functioning capital punishment statute. So here’s our modest suggestion: If Florida must have a death penalty - some polls suggest most Floridians don’t want one at all - make sure it can pass constitutional muster, or else prepare for many more years of litigation.

In an 8-1 ruling written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, with only Justice Samuel Alito dissenting, the court found Florida’s law violated the Sixth Amendment because judges, not juries, make the final decision imposing the death penalty.

Lawyers for the state claimed there were many reasons to uphold the state statute, but Justice Sotomayor dismissed them with one pithy remark: “None holds water.” That’s a message to state lawmakers: Go back to drawing board and come up with a new law that can safely withstand constitutional scrutiny.

At a minimum, such a law must require jurors’ unanimity in death penalties. This was not addressed explicitly by the court, but common sense suggests that if the new statute lacks this crucial rule, the nation’s highest court will eventually turn thumbs-down again on the Florida death penalty statute.

At present, among the 31 states that allow capital punishment, only Alabama and Delaware do not require a unanimous jury, and Delaware’s law is under review. Alabama, meanwhile, requires a vote of at least 10 to 2, leaving Florida as the only one needing just a 7-5 majority.

That outlier status is sufficient reason to require unanimity. The failure to require an all-in decision practically invites scrutiny. It’s illogical to require that all jurors agree on a finding of guilt, yet use a lesser standard to decide the fundamental question of life or death. Unanimity by the jury is also the rule in those rare federal court cases involving capital punishment.

Another good reason: Florida has had 23 Death Row exonerations, more than any other state, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, and the Tampa Bay Times found that prisoners sentenced to death on the basis of non-unanimous jury recommendations were more likely to have their cases overturned.

If all that’s not reason enough, here’s another: The Florida Supreme Court suggested in 2005 that lawmakers should impose a unanimity rule on jurors, but the Legislature has ignored this judicial warning for years.

The high court’s rejection of Florida’s statute has thrown the state’s criminal justice process into a tizzy.

First, the Legislature is trying to come up with a viable statute. The House version would require agreement by only nine of 12 jurors on a decision of death. The Senate favors unanimity, which is the safe and logical way to go. The quandary the state is in was illustrated last week when a Miami-Dade judge ruled that prosecutors cannot seek execution for a Miami man convicted of fatally beating another with a baseball bat because the state has no effective law in place.

Meanwhile, the Florida Supreme Court postponed the execution of a convicted double murderer in order to figure out how the Supreme Court’s decision affects inmates on Death Row. Clearly, in those 40 or more cases with an active appeal under way, the death penalty can no longer apply. In light of the Supreme Court’s decision, the safest solution for the Florida high court is to apply the same standard to all of the 389 inmates on Death Row.




Feb. 12

The Florida Times-Union on violence in Florida’s youthful offender prisons:

The violence that stalks the corridors and rooms of Florida’s youthful offender prisons was never supposed to occur.

In fact, the original notion behind establishing such prisons in the state was to protect the younger offenders from coming into contact with the violence perpetrated by older, more criminally experienced inmates.

The idea was to give youthful offenders a break, protecting them while providing them with rehabilitation in addition to their punishment. The youthful offenders in these facilities are generally under 25 and have been sentenced to 10 years or less.

The creation of youthful offender prisons was an encouraging move many hoped would improve the young inmates’ rehabilitation and keep them safe.

It has largely failed to meet expectations.

There are four youthful offender prisons in the state, some of them wings of adult prisons. In these, some 2,000 young people are housed.

“These youthful offender facilities may be called youthful offender facilities, but for all intents and purposes, they are all adult prisons,” says Miriam Haskell, a Southern Poverty Law Center attorney who recently filed a lawsuit for a 17-year-old beaten and raped at Sumter Correctional Institution.

“The Department of Corrections is clearly not equipped to work with children and youth,” Haskell says. “I think that’s what this case demonstrates and what this case and others within the system show.”

Karen Garcia, a Brevard County mother whose son, Alex, was sentenced to a youthful offender facility, says the experience was terrifying.

“The kids won’t talk; they’re scared,” she says. “It’s all gang related.”

Her son has since been released, but she says she’s still upset at what he faced.

“I feel like our system doesn’t help,” she says. “There’s obviously failure there all the way through.”

Miami Rep. David Richardson, who has interviewed nearly 90 current or past youthful offenders and toured all the four facilities in the state, also believes that change is needed. He’s working with the Department of Corrections on alterations he thinks could help.

His concern was piqued in the fall around the time The Miami Herald was collecting information for an in-depth investigation into the violence at the youthful offender prisons. That investigation centered on another young inmate who was raped and assaulted by other inmates.

Richardson’s own investigation left him shaken.

“It’s been an eye-opener for me,” he says. “These are kids who are vulnerable, and someone is exerting power over them, either another kid or a correctional officer. So I decided I needed to push for changes.”

It has also left him determined.

“I am going to make changes, I can promise you that,” he says. “And I can promise these kids that.”

Richardson has already taken a series of suggestions to the Department of Corrections and, he says, has received positive feedback.

Chief among those suggestions are strong proposals to close Lancaster Correctional Institution and eventually shutter the Sumter Correctional Institution as well.

Neither is appropriately designed to handle a youthful offender population, he says.

At Sumter, it’s “ground zero” for officer-on-inmate abuse while at Lancaster the violence is perpetrated on inmates by other inmates.

One of the reasons for the violence at Lancaster is that it houses its youthful offenders in old-style dorms that possess hidden corners where violence can easily escape detection. Even a complete redesign of the facility wouldn’t be enough to get rid of the problems, Richardson says.

The legislator has proposed that the youthful inmates be housed instead in locked two-person cells. And mere additions, such as more cameras in the halls, won’t be enough.

“I believe we can’t fix the bulk of the problem until we can get this population into another building,” Richardson says.

It’s time the state takes a long, careful look at how it handles young people in the Department of Corrections.

The corrections system in Florida is broken with rehabilitation a cruel joke while violence and abuse reigns.

Nowhere is the medieval state of Florida’s prison system more apparent and more troubling than in the juvenile wings.

Sadly, too many elected officials in Florida, through willful ignorance, have allowed this cold-hearted system to continue.

Immediate changes are needed followed by a whole-cloth review of youthful offender prisons in Florida.



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