- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:


July 17

The Bradenton Herald on Florida’s water protection laws:

Florida’s most valuable commodity - water - stirs visceral perspectives about environmental protections like nothing else. Tallahassee appears less than enthusiastic about the vast value of water, from tourism and development to recreation and wildlife. Instead, special interests command interest as history shows.

The current thick, toxic algae blooms spreading across the coast and other waterways in South Florida highlights the inexcusable procrastination on solving the flood of polluted water discharged from Lake Okeechobee. The Army Corps of Engineers is releasing billions of gallons of water polluted mostly from agricultural runoff that is saturated with fertilizer and other nutrients that feed algae blooms. The sludge is devastating the rivers and estuaries as well as the communities and businesses along those waters. Gov. Rick Scott and state water managers ignored countless warnings over the years about this inevitable disaster.

While there is no direct impact on Manatee County that can currently be measured, tourism officials across Florida fear vacation cancellations based on media reports that show the massive environmental disaster - similar to the reaction from the devastating 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Too little, too late, the governor declared Palm Beach, Martin, St. Lucie and Lee counties disaster areas and then had the nerve to challenge President Obama - long Scott’s political target - for federal money to repair the 143-mile earthen dike, built to prevent devastating flooding across southern Florida. This comes from a governor who has eschewed federal funds for political reasons for years, to the detriment of Floridians.

While issuing his disaster declaration, the governor also blamed the president and the federal government for not properly funding dike maintenance and repairs. Florida is fully complicit in denying an adequate share of funds to lake sustainability, and delay after delay has led to the present catastrophe. Toxic algae blooms have been occurring for years, and immediate action should be undertaken to prevent more.

Following the pattern of Tallahassee’s shameful record on environmental protection over the years, in January one legislative leader hyped a bill as a “historic” move to “modernize” state water policy. But the end product, adopted into law, was fashioned by special interests - actually eviscerating enforceable regulations against polluters. One preposterous provision allows the agricultural industry to oversee itself under the pretense of a so-called “best management practices” arrangement. In addition, large water users can dawdle for decades to satisfy cleanup goals. And there are no penalties for breaking the weak rules. Those stand in direct opposition to environmental protection.

In a letter to Scott, former Florida senator and governor Bob Graham described the bill as “blatantly” favoring special interests and he urged its rejection. Scott, though, remained tone deaf to serious environmental protection by signing the measure.

In another move subverting environmental protection, a 2010 law designed to protect water quality required inspections of septic tanks once every five years. But two years later, the Legislature repealed the statute.

The best that can be said about Amendment 1, overwhelming passed in 2014 by Florida voters obviously alarmed by state indifference to the environment, is it forced the Legislature to act on Everglades restoration. The 2016 Florida Legacy Act requires $200 million annually for two decades be spent on that project. Otherwise, lawmakers have been acting disinterested in meaningful action on other amendment priorities, from land-buying to springs restoration, and they still refuse to fully implement the amendment.

Florida had the opportunity of a lifetime to purchase farmland south of Lake Okeechobee for water storage - in a deal that then-Gov. Charlie Crist arranged. But Big Sugar flexed its political muscle - gained through campaign checks amounting to $57 million over 22 years - and had Tallahassee kill the deal.

Because of Florida’s subtropical climate, no water body is immune from algae blooms should nutrients such as phosphate and nitrogen be present, mostly from residential runoff and agricultural fertilizers. But natural nutrients are everywhere in underground rock and waterway sediment. The algae on Lake Manatee, though, does not form into toxic blooms thanks to constant monitoring and preventive measures such as algaecide and water circulators.

Manatee County vigorously protects its most precious resource. Tallahassee should too.




July 15:

The Ledger of Lakeland on Florida Republican politicians and Hillary Clinton:

Two Florida Republicans’ frustration with the conclusion of Hillary Clinton’s email saga manifested itself recently in two different ways, at two different targets.

First, after FBI Director James Comey denounced Clinton for being “extremely careless” in her handling of classified government documents through her private email system, including sending or receiving 110 such emails after she claimed to have not sent or distributed any classified materials at all, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio demanded that Clinton and some of her top aides be stripped of their security clearances.

“There is simply no excuse for Hillary Clinton’s decision to set up a home-cooked email system which left sensitive and classified national security information vulnerable to theft and exploitation by America’s enemies,” Rubio wrote in a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, citing in part how Clinton’s actions violated an executive order signed by President Barack Obama regarding the safeguarding of those materials.

“Her actions were grossly negligent, damaged national security and put lives at risk. Failure to impose any sanctions for these clear violations of State Department procedure undermines the integrity of the State Department’s system for handling classified information and sends the wrong message to the Department’s employees,” Rubio added.

Then on Wednesday, U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross demanded that Attorney General Loretta Lynch resign for her actions as the FBI investigation concluded, and for her responses to a House committee’s questions about how Comey opted against referring the case for prosecution.

“Attorney General Lynch has broken the sacred trust of the American people,” the Lakeland Republican said in a statement. Ross further maintained that Lynch’s meeting with Bill Clinton shortly before Comey announced his findings “was a clear conflict of interest, and seriously calls into question the integrity of the entire investigation.”

“For Attorney General Lynch to blindly follow such a serious recommendation (from Comey) and prevent her department from providing its own recommendation completely negates our entire legal system, not to mention gives the impression of preferential treatment on behalf of the DOJ. . This practice of protecting the political elite at the expense of trust and justice must be stopped.”

The Obama administration already rejected one demand. Earlier this week National Intelligence Director James Clapper said he did not intend to withhold classified security briefings from “any officially nominated, eligible candidate.”

Clapper said no operational details would be given. Still, let’s just hope those are verbal briefings, and not something Clapper disseminates via email.

Meanwhile, Lynch, who later said she did regret hosting Bill Clinton at the Phoenix airport, is not going anywhere, no matter how politically motivated or professionally incompetent her behavior was in the past couple of weeks.

But, as we see it, the fact that neither Rubio nor Ross will get the satisfaction they seek does not undermine the broader point they make: that is, Clinton cannot be trusted and we cannot expect those within the government who are beholden to her - Bill Clinton appointed Lynch as a U.S. attorney when he was president; Lynch’s former law firm once did the Clintons’ taxes - or close to her to put the nation’s interests above hers or their own.

Republican Donald Trump certainly has his faults, and his greater-than-arm’s-length relationship with basic facts and the truth is a major one.

But, really, is Clinton even marginally more trustworthy? The email snafu was just one of countless flip-flops, half-truths and outright lies she has told since she served as the nation’s top diplomat and subsequently began her quest for the White House. During the primaries, Democratic voters recognized this, consistently giving Sen. Bernie Sanders far higher marks than Clinton for credibility, trustworthiness and honesty.

Remember, Clinton is selling herself to voters as the competent one in this election. And yet, based on her past behavior, it is not far-fetched to predict that a Hillary Clinton administration will be as scandal-tarred as the first Clinton presidency - while lacking the willingness to deal with Republicans to boost the economy.

Clinton partisans will dismiss Rubio and Ross as “haters,” or as die-hard GOP hacks, or as the front men for the perpetual “vast right-wing conspiracy” that cannot let go of Bill or Hillary, or accept them as legitimate.

That’s fine. They can reside beneath that bubble. But the rest of the voters outside of it need to be more clear-eyed and thoughtful. They need to decide if they can live for four, or possibly eight, years with the evasiveness, the dishonesty and one set of rules for those at the top, and another for everyone else.




July 13

The Florida Times-Union on criminal justice reform:

Remember that old political slogan that became so popular on the election trail in the 1970s: “Let’s get tough on crime!”

Well, of course. Who’s against that? But all good things can be taken to extremes.

That policy, which attracted much support among Americans following a rise in crime during the 1950s and ‘60s, eventually led to the 1986 law that introduced mandatory minimum sentences.

There were good reasons for those sentences because the system had become too lenient. Now the pendulum has gone to the other extreme.

There are doubts today whether those mandatory minimums, and particularly the ones focusing on drug offenders, actually have made the country any safer.

And they have certainly led to a national prison system that is both overflowing with prisoners and sucking huge amounts of money from federal and state budgets.

The policy also made the United States the leading jailer in the world.

A new survey by the Prison Policy Initiative shows that “smart justice” reforms are still mostly rhetoric while this country’s prisons are still ridiculously full.

Top of the list? Louisiana with an incarceration rate of 1,143 inmates per 100,000 state residents.

That’s perhaps not terribly surprising given the state’s prison history.

The Louisiana State Penitentiary, alternatively known as Angola and the Alcatraz of the South, is the largest maximum-security prison in the country with a population of 5,000.

It was the institution on which the brutal prison movie hit “The Green Mile” was based.

Where is Florida on the list? It sits at the eighth spot, right below Texas, with 868 prisoners per 100,000 state residents.

As a whole, the United States incarcerates 685 people for every 100,000 residents - more than any other country in the world. This despite the fact that our crime rate is very similar to crime rates in other industrialized nations.

Comparisons with other countries

The startling part of this data is how other countries fare against American states in their rates of incarceration.

For example, if you imagine each state as a separate “country” that carries its own particular incarceration rate, 32 states and the District of Columbia all have higher incarceration rates than the highest ranked foreign country, Turkmenistan.

In fact, the very seat of our nation, the District of Columbia, has an incarceration rate twice Turkmenistan’s rate.

Our Sunshine State incarcerates 300 more people than does Turkmenistan for every 100,000 residents.

Glancing down the list, all sorts of striking results appear.

Australia, about the same size as our own 48 contiguous states, incarcerates only 152 people per 100,000 residents.

Our neighbor to the south, Mexico, whose 2016 crime rates are very close to those in this country, jails 212 per 100,000.

And Venezuela, which has the highest crime rate in the world, has an incarceration rate of only 159 people per 100,000.

Is there something peculiar about Americans that we must imprison so many?

Clearly we’re doing something wrong.

We need to get it right

It’s time this country looks at serious prison reform before the financial cost of our exploding prison system takes an even higher toll on state and federal budgets.

Bloated prison systems have huge overhead costs, including those for the additional staff members having more prisoners requires.

We also need to get it right for the inmates themselves.

For some, the lengthy sentences imposed by the “get-tough-on-crime” laws serve less to rehabilitate than to further immerse them in the criminal culture.

It’s just as important to address the pre-release and post-release programs provided to inmates to ensure they don’t simply return to prison because they didn’t possess the skills to make it on their own.

In Florida, for example, currently we have a recidivism rate of about 70 percent.

So what can we do as a state to lower our prison population?

Deborah Brodsky with Florida State University’s Project on Accountable Justice has some suggestions:

- Encourage more alternatives to traditional incarceration. We should be enhancing the special programs, such as Veterans Court and Drug Court, to make sure they reach all people possible.

- Use alternatives, such as civil citations with adults, more often. It is an arrest alternative derived from the highly successful Juvenile Civil Citation, proven low-cost, effective sanctions in which low-risk adults are not arrested but are provided intervention and diversion services with which they must comply.

- Redesign the bail system in the state, so it is based more on the amount of risk that a person charged with a crime presents to the community and less on the person’s ability to pay.

- Reform the state’s sentencing system. Florida tends to give convicted people longer sentences than other states. Let’s look at what is working elsewhere.

- Prepare people for their eventual release more effectively by providing programs both before and after release to ensure they don’t recommit.

- Finally, put into play a more flexible form of compassionate release for the elderly. That would both cut down on costs to pay for their mounting medical bills and provide these inmates end-of-life freedom at a time when they’re less likely to commit crimes.

It’s time to drop that old slogan of “get tough on crime” and create a new one.

How about: “Get smart with justice.”



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