- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:


Jan. 4

The Miami Herald on state prisons:

A shocking Miami Herald investigation into the condition of some prisons and the abuse of inmates, especially at Lowell Correctional Institute, makes it plain: Florida’s prison system needs not only an overhaul, but independent oversight of what really goes on behind those prison walls.

With the Florida legislative session less than two weeks away, some legislators want to take action while the outrage over conditions in our prisons documented by the Herald (as well as the state’s own studies) is fresh in the minds of the public and lawmakers.

Leading the way is state Sen. Greg Evers, a Republican from Florida’s Panhandle, who says his office has met with citizens and corrections employees to craft a bill “we can all vote on.” The key is the creation of a watchdog commission, Mr. Evers told the Editorial Board on Monday.

He said new Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Judy Jones “has gotten the department under control, but we need another set of eyes and ears” at the department’s 142 facilities.

That oversight can come from a state-created body - or the federal government, said Mr. Evers. “I would prefer a state commission,” he said.

Mr. Evers said his bill is in the idea stage, but its goals have come into focus.

“I want Florida inmates to be safe while in prison - and I want the same for our corrections officers,” Mr. Evers said.

And in a perfect world, those leaving our prison system would be rehabilitated. “You wouldn’t mind having them move next door,” Mr. Evers said.

For now, that’s fantasy. Many of the thousands of inmates released annually into the community have undergone little job training to re-enter society. They continue their lives of crime because our corrections system fails them. Thus the system also fails the taxpayers.

The shortcomings of our corrections system have recently been detailed in a study by Florida Legislature’s Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability. Analysts toured prison facilities and culled the experiences and suggestions of nearly 300 corrections employees and inmates.

Their report concluded the state’s corrections system is poorly serving the citizens of Florida and the 33,000 inmates released annually. Over the last decade, despite a decrease in crime, the number of Florida inmates has grown from 80,000 to about 100,000.

In contrast, the number of corrections employees has dropped from 12,100 to 11,000, which means one officer may be responsible for 100 inmates.

Here are some possible suggestions to improve the system:

? Better pay for Florida corrections officers, who now earn about $31,000 annually, one of the lowest corrections salaries among the nation’s large states. Consequently, the turnover rate is high.

? Spend more wisely the $2 billion budgeted to Florida’s Department of Corrections.

? Heed the suggestion of police chiefs who have called for more treatment programs for drug and alcohol offenses and the mentally ill.

? Set up early release programs based on age, offense and medical condition.

Sen. Evers has taken the lead and deserves credit. Lawmakers should ensure that any “independent” commission is truly independent and focused on fixing decades of problems, not creating a new bureaucracy to maintain business as usual.

Online: www.miamiherald.com/


Jan. 4

The Tampa Bay Times on why the state needs a catastrophe fund:

The story of an unseasonably warm Christmas break quickly gave way to the record flooding sowing misery across the Midwest. Though the cyclical El Niño pattern is being blamed, the terrible weather affecting many parts of the world comes as rising global temperatures threaten the planet with new risks for heavy rain, flooding, drought and other weather extremes. This season is a stark reminder of the need for a national catastrophe fund and a more serious approach by the federal government and the states to manage climate change.

Two-thirds of the country trudged through near or record highs over Christmas, ruining vacations for air conditioning contractors across the South as warming from the Pacific Ocean followed with heat and moisture, creating a punishing weather pattern into the Eastern states.

Severe flooding from northern Texas to the Ohio River Valley created some of the highest flood stages ever recorded. At least 20 deaths were blamed on flooding in Illinois and Missouri, which declared states of emergency as record downpours closed roads, water treatment plants and entire towns. Prison inmates were again filling sandbags Monday in Illinois.

This crisis is unfolding only weeks after nearly 190 nations pledged in a landmark summit in Paris to take bold new steps against climate change. While it may take years to understand the combined effects of El Niño and other impacts from longer-term surface heating, many of the very horror stories that world leaders sketched out in Paris are playing out in America’s Midwest. And added to that are everyday stories from the last year about drought in California and seawater bubbling up through the streets of Miami Beach.

Weather doesn’t follow state lines, which is why a national catastrophe fund should be the tool for managing these large-scale crises. The National Guard, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other public and private groups are trained and equipped to provide security and comfort in the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster. But the nation needs a stand-alone program to oversee any national recovery over the long haul. That’s where a national catastrophe fund would come in, using the sound principles of shared risk and united effort to get hard-hit regions back on their feet.

The federal government and the states also need to show a greater urgency in addressing both large and localized impacts of climate change. President Barack Obama has made a start with a plan for reducing carbon pollution from power plants. But many states, including Florida, where Gov. Rick Scott has expressed doubts about man-made climate change, still have not advanced any overall strategy. Most of the debate in Florida in recent years has been about whether the Scott administration tried to ban state employees from using the terms “climate change” or “global warming.” If anything, the leader of a coastal state should be doing what he can to draw attention to the real-life impacts that warming will bring, as the pictures on television have so vividly shown in recent weeks.

Online: https://www.tampabay.com/


Jan. 5

The Sun Sentinel on why the state should test the backlog of rape kits:

It is horrifying enough that a statewide survey found more than 13,400 untested rape kits on the shelves of law enforcement evidence rooms.

Worse are the unacceptable excuses given for not testing these kits, which could provide critical information for getting rapists off the streets.

Among the reasons cited Monday in the Florida Department of Law Enforcement report:

The victim didn’t want to proceed with the investigation. But what if she later learns the DNA from her assault matched that of another? Besides, no matter the victim’s decision to prosecute, police should want to know as much as they can to keep our neighborhoods safe.

The state attorney’s office declined to prosecute. But isn’t it possible that with more information, the state attorney might have reached a different conclusion?

The rapist admits he did it. Fine, but as Miami Police Chief Rodolfo Llanes told the Miami Herald, “What if that guy rapes somebody else?” Knowing his DNA might help solve the crime.

The state doesn’t require every kit to be tested. Is it really necessary to write good management practices into law? What are the leaders of law enforcement thinking?

Crime lab employees are overworked, underpaid. FDLE says its crime lab is underfunded and regularly losing good people. If so, Gov. Rick Scott and state lawmakers should give the agency the resources it needs to do the job. But that doesn’t explain everything because many rape kits are handled locally. If law enforcement lacks the resources to do its job, its leaders should be pounding the table. They certainly speak up when it comes to funding their pensions and benefits.

Locally, the survey said Fort Lauderdale police have 527 untested kits. The Broward Sheriff’s Office has 277. The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office has 1,232. Boca Raton police have 59. And Miami police have the most of any law enforcement agency in Florida - 2,243.

Now, think about all the women who underwent a vaginal exam - at one of the worst moments of their lives - only to learn no one did anything with the results.

“It is painfully traumatic at a deep, guttural level,” said Miriam Firpo-Jimenez, of the Nancy Cotterman Sexual Assault Treatment Center in Fort Lauderdale, which sees more than 40 victims per month.

In the upcoming budget, Scott proposes the state spend $8.5 million to address the backlog, but FDLE says it could cost as much as $32 million and take up to nine years.


Meanwhile, Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, has filed a bill that would require police to ensure rape kits are tested within 12 months. A similar measure by Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, faces three committees during the session, which starts Jan. 12.

To her credit, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi has vowed to work with the Legislature, law enforcement and victims’ advocates to get the unprocessed rape kits tested.

Lawmakers and local law enforcement agencies must pull out the stops to clear the backlog.

No excuses are acceptable.

Online: https://www.sun-sentinel.com/

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