- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:

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March 25

The Sarasota Herald Tribune says the Legislature deserves credit for banning child marriage and funding Healthy Start Coalitions:

The Florida Legislature’s 2018 session, which ended March 11, was dominated by debates over the $88.7 billion budget, school safety and gun control - all of them major, important issues.

But the Legislature deserves credit for resolving two issues that gained less attention but are nonetheless critical to Florida’s future.

Those issues are the funding of Healthy Start Coalitions and the banning of child marriage.

Healthy Start provides services for about 80,000 pregnant women and 56,000 infants, especially those at higher-than-normal risk of illness or death, in all 67 counties.

Through Healthy Start, nurses and other personnel make home visits, arrange for prenatal screenings, promote good nutrition and, in the most risky cases, help mothers overcome addictions.

Since Healthy Start was initiated in 1991, Florida’s infant mortality rate has fallen by 35 percent, due in part to the coalitions’ resources and services.

The state’s annual cost for Healthy Start - around $66 million - is modest considering the overall budget and the crucial services involved.

Yet, under the state Senate’s proposed budget, Healthy Start was set to lose $19 million - about 29 percent of its funding statewide.

While $19 million is relatively small share of the state’s budget, the funding cut would be devastating.

Fortunately, the state House of Representatives, whose budget called for maintaining Healthy Start funding at its current level, prevailed.

“The continued funding will allow us to provide essential services and community interventions to Florida’s high-risk mothers and infants,” the Healthy Start Coalition of Sarasota County said in a news release.

All Floridians should be grateful that the budget ax was stayed for such a vital program.

And Floridians can take pride that the Legislature overwhelmingly approved a bill prohibiting marriage for anyone under 17.

Under the legislation, which Gov. Rick Scott has promised to sign, anyone marrying a 17-year-old could not be more than two years older and minors would need parental consent.

According to Florida’s Bureau of Vital Statistics, in the past five years, 1,828 marriage licenses were issued in the state to couples in which at least one of the applicants was a minor. One egregious example occurred in 2013, when one of the parties was 13 and the other was in the 16-17 range.

Most of the examples between 2012 and 2016 involve one party of 16-17 and the other 18-24 - although 135 involved one applicant between 16 and 17 and the other between 25 and 29.

So this isn’t all about kids marrying kids; it’s often about adults marrying teens - and sometimes children.

And, though it’s hard to believe, Florida’s law will make it a leader in reform among other states.

The child-marriage opponent organization Unchained at Last found that more than 167,000 underage Americans in 38 states were married between 2000 and 2010. An estimated 250,000 such marriages occurred nationwide, including those in states that did not provide data.

The Legislature’s actions regarding Healthy Start and child marriage are reminders that, beyond the headlines and controversies, Florida’s lawmakers sometimes quietly take steps that maintain essential services and move the state forward.

Online: http://www.heraldtribune.com

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March 27

Children behind bars exist in a Neverland where their views and emotions regarding the outside world remain stuck in the adolescent perspective that got them incarcerated, making it almost impossible to adjust to life once released.

How can it be otherwise when their every move and thought is controlled within this country’s juvenile jails by the adults who watch over them?

Like zoo animals, they become “institutionalized,” unable to accomplish tasks on their own.

Add that to the fact that too little attention is given to individualizing a child’s treatment to deal with the trauma, poverty and neglect that might have contributed to their original crime.

It is a toxic mix.

For example, Cristian Fernandez, convicted at age 12 of killing his 2-year-old half brother in 2011, only received individualized trauma-focused treatment when the system was pressured to provide it.

Why wasn’t such therapy routine? Particularly for someone like Fernandez, who was himself the victim of both sexual and physical abuse?

Then there’s always the possibility that the juvenile detention facilities will inflict their own lasting psychological damage on children.

After combing through 10 years of Florida Department of Juvenile Justice incident reports, The Miami Herald concluded these juvenile facilities were often inhumane places where staff encouraged juvenile offenders to fight and abuse others, sometimes to the point of death.

Adult prison increases problems

The problem becomes even more dramatic when children are “direct filed” into adult court with the expectation that if convicted, they’ll do their time in adult prisons.

In Florida, the adult prisons are less prepared to deal with young offenders than the state’s juvenile justice system.

These kids, as the Southern Poverty Law Center pointed out in a recent report, are “destined to fail.”

Even though the state has created a Youthful Offenders Program for people 14 to 24 where young people can be placed to ensure they’re kept separate from more hardened adult prisoners, it’s inadequate to overcome the negative consequences of prison “institutionalization” and substandard education.

According to the report, “the educational services they provide to children held in adult jails are in most cases seriously deficient. For some children, the services are virtually nonexistent. Adult jails are simply not intended or equipped to house children.”

Although it’s bad for boys, it’s even worse for girls convicted as adults - they have even fewer services.

No one knows that better than Kim Lawrance of Winter Haven.

Lawrance’s daughter, Taylor, was 15 when she and four other teens committed a home invasion where they stole electronics and clothes.

One of the teens was armed, so armed robbery was added to Taylor’s conviction.

Taylor, who in middle school was directed toward the International Baccalaureate program, was direct filed in Polk County and received 10 years in adult prison.

She is currently behind bars in the Lowell Correctional Institution for women in Marion County.

Although Taylor, now 18, did earn a GED in prison at 16, there have been few other programs available to her.

“They just shove them in a corner,” Lawrance said regarding the treatment that youths like her daughter receive in adult prison.

Time to make changes

It’s obvious that the way Florida deals with its young offenders must be examined and reworked.

It needs to be aimed at giving young offenders actual opportunities to turn their lives around and become productive citizens.

They need individualized therapy.

They need quality educational programs.

They need life skills and a chance to become accustomed to real-world situations before they return to the community after incarceration.

And Florida must look at the system of direct filing children with the goal of decreasing the number of kids headed for adult prison.

Prison is no place for children.

Online: http://www.jacksonville.com

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March 27

Sun Sentinel says the Florida’s Constitution Revision Commission isn’t up to task:

When the Florida Constitution Revision Commission set out a year ago to hear what the public wanted it to do, nobody said it better than Susan Bucher, a former state legislator who is Palm Beach County’s supervisor of elections.

“Your job,” she said, “is not to unravel. Your job is to make our state better.”

The commission wasn’t up to the challenge.

Service on the blue-ribbon panel is one of the rarest of opportunities and highest of honors. Every 20 years, 37 people are given the awesome power to shape Florida history by sending constitutional amendments directly to the ballot.

The voters will pass their judgments in November, but it’s already clear this commission, compared to its predecessors of 20 and 40 years ago, let a great opportunity go to waste.

For a midterm grade, C-minus would be generous - and only because of the defeat of some of the worst ideas it was considering. Those included an assault on privacy pushed by the right-to-life movement, two measures to promote private school vouchers and a proposal to make it much more difficult to pass other constitutional amendments.

The commission took only three days last week to cull the 37 proposals its committees had approved and move 25 toward final action next month. Of those, only nine would truly make Florida better.

They include a six-year post-service ban on lobbying by elected officials, a prohibition on offshore oil drilling, an end to greyhound racing and a provision to open party primaries to all voters if the winner will have no general election opposition other than a write-in candidate.

Another measure, unsung but important, would abolish the legal presumption that courts and administrative law judges must defer to a state agency’s interpretation of a law or a rule. The judges would get to draw their own conclusions.

Some other proposals might be appropriate as laws, but shouldn’t be cluttering up the Constitution. This category includes the politically appealing “Marsy’s Law,” exported from California, which imposes a laundry list of victims’ rights on police, prosecutors and courts. There’s no evidence the Legislature was even asked to consider it before its lobbyists sought a constitutional amendment. Gov. Rick Scott is eager to have it on the ballot, along with his likely senatorial candidacy in November.

The commission’s poor performance is reflected by a wealth of good ideas that failed to come up or move forward because of limited vision, political pressure or lobbyist influence.

They include:

(asterisk) Standing for citizens to sue to protect the environment, which was sadly killed in committee.

(asterisk) A nursing home patients’ bill of rights, which would have mandated “a safe clean, comfortable and homelike environment” and forbidden nursing homes from asking patients to waive their right to a jury trial if they were injured.

(asterisk) Independence for judicial nominating commissions, which have been degraded into political patronage committees.

(asterisk) The top-two primary, which would have allowed the 2.4 million Florida voters who claim no party to vote in the primary election.

(asterisk) A proposal to abolish the death penalty.

(asterisk) Measures to establish an independent redistricting commission and require a judge’s approval to try a child in criminal court.

(asterisk) And confronted with the most urgent issue of our times - the assault weapons used to massacre 49 people at an Orlando nightclub and 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School - the commission cowered behind its rules and refused to discuss a ban.

The commission’s role, as seen by the authors of Florida’s 1968 Constitution, was to rise above the partisanship and lobby-dominated politics inherent in the Legislature. It was to take a more statesmanlike view of Florida’s ever-emerging problems and adjust the Constitution to accommodate them.

The flaw in the design is that partisan politicians appoint most of the commissioners: 15, including the chairman, by the governor; and nine each by the House speaker and Senate president. The chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court appoints three, who are usually the most independent. The attorney general is automatically a member, but Pam Bondi made the least of that opportunity, almost never attending committee hearings and showing up only for some of the full commission deliberations last week. She spoke against addressing assault weapons.

This commission has more work to do. It should reconsider some of its more questionable proposals, including:

(asterisk) Proposal 11, which would require counties to elect all five constitutional officers: the sheriff, tax collector, circuit court clerk, property appraiser and supervisor of elections. It would repeal provisions of eight voter-approved county charters, including Broward’s. This proposal, sponsored by a commissioner who’s a circuit court clerk, is the worst assault on home rule since it was established in the 1968 Constitution.

(asterisk) Proposal 43, which would limit school board members to two terms. This is another insult to home rule and the wisdom of local voters.

(asterisk) Proposal 29, which would require employers to use the federal government’s flawed system for verifying employment eligibility. This is pandering to the anti-immigrant movement. Even if it were good law, it doesn’t belong in the Constitution.

(asterisk) Proposal 44, which requires a supermajority vote for college and university boards to raise student fees, but not tuition. Granted, fee increases can be subterfuges, but this seriously handcuffs those responsible for running the schools and is another instance of micromanaging that doesn’t belong in a Constitution.

(asterisk) Proposal 71, which exempts charter schools established by the state from supervision by local school boards, the agencies best suited to oversee them.

(asterisk) Proposal 93, which would allow entire school districts to declare themselves “innovative” and exempt from most provisions of the state school code. The details, including what would qualify as a “high performing” district, would be left to the Legislature. Something so broadly experimental - and targeted toward charter schools - is better tried on a limited basis, not in the Constitution

The commission’s Style and Drafting Committee should consider whether some parts of the ethics proposal go too far and whether the oil drilling ban leaves an opening for pipelines from wells beyond the state’s offshore jurisdiction.

The open primary proposal would stop candidates and party bosses from recruiting sham write-in candidates to keep their primaries closed, but it got only 21 votes last week, one short of the supermajority needed to make the November ballot.

The dog racing proposal, heavily lobbied, is in worse trouble with only 18 votes in favor and 14 against. If these fail, it would flatter the commission to grade its performance even D-minus.

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

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