- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:

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Dec. 22

The Palm Beach Post on shutting down the work-release program in Palm Beach County:

The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office’s work-release program is costly and under-used. And not to mention, under investigation.



The staff of the county Criminal Justice Commission (CJC), citing the first two reasons, recommended the controversial program be shut down. Sheriff Ric Bradshaw last week abruptly decided to follow the staff’s recommendation.

Bradshaw is right to shutter the work-release program, one of only five in the state. While it was good that most participants successfully complete the program, the risks of contraband being introduced into the Palm Beach County Stockade or the potential for accidentally releasing an inmate from a maximum security facility isn’t really worth it.

(The sheriff’s office will maintain its house arrest program, which could include work release should a judge allow it, but it won’t decide who can participate.)

But the best reason for ending the work-release program is the same reason that Bradshaw requested a limited review in the first place, back in August: the lingering stench from its cushy handling of the former Palm Beach financier and convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.

The outrageous deference shown Epstein, now deceased, stands apart from any systemic issues in a seldom-used work-release program. This is about what state Sen. Lauren Book called “an unprecedented and deeply troubling level of leniency and luxury” while Epstein was incarcerated.

Epstein was somehow approved for the work-release program while serving 13 months on two prostitution charges in 2008.

An in-depth examination of the stockade’s records by the Post’s Christine Stapleton revealed how the 66-year-old Epstein got special treatment from Day One, including his cell door being unlocked and liberal access granted to the attorney meeting room, where a television was installed. He was even allowed to move to a separate, non-staffed area of the stockade after he agreed to pay for his own guards.

Not only did PBSO grant the convicted sex offender special treatment by allowing him out on work release - contrary to Bradshaw’s own policy at the time - but Epstein is alleged to have had sex with underage girls while supposedly working at the West Palm Beach office of his sketchy Florida Science Foundation, or at his home.

As we have said previously, appearing so deferential to a serial sexual predator in your charge not only looks bad, it smells bad for both the PBSO and its four-term sheriff. That’s why we agreed with Book that an internal investigation and a subsequent criminal probe, launched by Bradshaw, into Epstein’s stay in the stockade - though commendable - are not enough to wipe away the stench on their own.

The only way to do that is by having an outside agency conduct an independent probe. Book, herself a victim of sexual abuse as a child, was right to press Gov. Ron DeSantis to direct the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) to determine whether “someone broke the law or if a systemic failure occurred.”

DeSantis relented weeks later at Bradshaw’s request, ordering FDLE to take over a criminal probe into not only the privileges provided Epstein while he was in PBSO custody more than a decade ago, but also “irregularities” regarding a 2008 plea agreement with Epstein.

We, along with Epstein’s scores of young victims and county taxpayers, eagerly await the outcome of that independent investigation.

The county CJC’s “independent” probe comes nowhere close to providing the public confidence required in this case. Though well-meaning, CJC staff made no attempt to dig into Epstein’s time in the work-release program. The staff review was from January 2014 to August 2019, well after Epstein left.

“We’re not an investigative body,” Kristina Henson, executive director of the commission, told the Post’s Hannah Morse. “We’re not here to find wrongdoing. We’re not here to look at what happened in a particular case.”

That’s a disappointing statement from an independent agency so closely tied to law enforcement. And to add confusion, the Corrections Task Force - a committee of the CJC - went against staff and voted to keep the program going “because it worked.”

Small wonder, then, that Bradshaw saw no need to wait for the CJC to vote on whether to end the work-release program. He made his announcement Monday morning. The commission, standing on ceremony, voted 13-2 to keep it going later that same morning.

Jeffrey Epstein, a sexual predator whose depravity found its way into our communities’ schools, was allowed to participate in a work-release program that treated him more like a “client” than an inmate.

His victims, as well as the rest of us, still deserve to know why. The questions won’t go away with this misused program’s demise.

Online: https://www.palmbeachpost.com/

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Dec. 19

The Orlando Sentinel on young people needing better access to mental health services:

America is preparing to close a deadly decade for public school, with children and teenagers slaughtered on school grounds at the hands of young, disturbed shooters.

Florida, unfortunately, played a lead role in this story. History will record the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting as the third deadliest mass school shooting since Columbine in 1999. Only Virginia Tech (32) and Sandy Hook Elementary (26) saw more young people and school administrators murdered ahead of the 17 lives cut short in Parkland in 2018.

We know why our schools have become less safe; too much access to guns and not enough access to mental health services.

These factors contribute to the rising number of threats by young people who intend to harm others or themselves, such as the teenage girl who shot and killed herself inside a gymnasium at Lake Mary High School this March.

But we’re not doing enough quickly enough to discourage another Nikolas Cruz from unleashing a disaster. Or, to prevent kids from harming themselves.

A powerful eight-month investigation published this month by the South Florida Sun Sentinel outlined just how dire the situation is inside our schools when it comes to managing emotionally disturbed kids.

The newspaper unearthed numerous police reports, court records and spoke to more than 50 parents, educators and mental health professionals to help answer a very tough and complicated question: How many other potential killers are simmering in our schools?

Here is the inconvenient truth: A lot more than you think.

A deep dive into public records across 10 major Florida counties, including Seminole and Orange, showed more than 100 threats to murder teachers or students, the Sun Sentinel reported.

These are just the threats we know about. It’s unnerving to imagine how many more go undocumented.

Florida took some action after the Parkland shooting. Legislators poured $70 million toward mental health services for the state’s 67 school districts and required more law enforcement inside schools. In addition, the Department of Education issued an unfunded mandate this summer for districts to provide at least five hours of mental health education a year.

These measures address the part of the iceberg above water, not the part below.

We still lack answers about what communities, mental health providers, law enforcement and schools should do about severely emotionally disturbed kids who pose immediate and imminent threats like Cruz once did.

Remember, Cruz’s mother sought counseling services for him before she died from complications of pneumonia, according to the Sun Sentinel.

Kids who are found to pose immediate harm to themselves or others can be Baker Acted, a 1971 law that allows people who are believed to be mentally ill to be held involuntarily for up to 72 hours at a mental health facility.

In Central Florida, Halifax Health Medical Center, Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health Florida and Aspire Health Partners are the main providers equipped to emotionally stabilize children.

But a Baker Act only addresses the immediate crisis, not the long-term care high-risk kids need to get better.

Even if a mental health professional determines the child or teenager needs further treatment after the evaluation period and all parties consent, what’s the next step?

“There is a hole in that area,” said Keith Raskin, Vice President of Aspire Health Partners.

Several local mental health experts and pediatricians say long-term residential care is severely lacking, meaning kids with severe emotional challenges often cycle back through the system. Some end up being Baker Acted multiple times without any real improvement.

The sad reality is that kids with severe emotional trauma can get better with the right support and resources. Raskin said treatments like eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) have been very successful, but it’s also expensive for treatment centers to administer.

The initial training for staff is $2,000 per person, and that doesn’t include other costs.

Florida’s legislators have underfunded mental health programs far too long. Florida consistently ranks toward the bottom of the country in spending on mental health programs, something the Sentinel documented five years ago.

If we want to move past crisis response to preventative care and treatment for high-risk kids, then legislators need to prioritize this in next year’s budget.

We’ve seen the devastating impact from a lack of vigilance and funding for mental health programs by our state play out inside schools and beyond.

Let’s hope our kids don’t have to see those impacts again in the next decade.

Online: https://www.orlandosentinel.com/

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Dec. 18

The SunSentinel on voting rights for felons:

It has now been more than a year since the people restored the right to vote to most felons under Amendment 4. But this is Florida, where progress on civil rights is excruciatingly slow.

The legal fight grinds on with no end in sight - and at a steep cost to taxpayers.

This is not justice. It is an affront to the more than 5 million voters who enacted historic civil rights reform and to the estimated 1.4 million felons who deserve to be voting citizens. Even a federal judge overseeing the controversy, Robert Hinkle, has accused the state of trying to “run out the clock” to block felons from voting in the upcoming presidential election.

To make matters worse, the state is sending mixed signals on the overarching question of whether felons must settle up all of their financial obligations before they can vote. The official state response appears to be yes and no.

First, to recap: After voters put Amendment 4 in the Constitution, the Legislature passed and Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a law that defines all terms of a sentence to require full payment of fines, fees and restitution, unless it’s wiped away by a judge or converted to community service hours.

Civil rights groups, on behalf of a group of 17 felons, filed suit and won a limited victory from Hinkle. Rather than abide by the decision, the state appealed, keeping felons in legal limbo. Many registered to vote, even though they may still owe money. Others didn’t, out of fear or confusion.

In the courts, the state’s legal strategy, as directed by DeSantis, is that all terms of a sentence must be met before felons can cast ballots.

But as chairman of the four-member state clemency board that considers petitions from individual felons, DeSantis takes a more measured and humane approach and has expressed a willingness to compromise on payment requirements on a case-by-case basis.

Consider Christopher Taylor, 51, who appeared at a clemency hearing Dec. 4. The former Davie resident applied for a pardon, the highest form of clemency. He said his right to vote was restored in 2007 in a brief period of compassionate clemency under former Gov. Charlie Crist, whose reforms were quickly abolished by his successor, Rick Scott.

“Thirty years ago, I was a 21-year-old stupid kid,” Taylor said as he recalled a fateful trip to Fort Lauderdale to buy cocaine.

Convicted of drug trafficking, he served time in prison. But as he told DeSantis and the three Cabinet members, he now works in the jewelry business after owning two electronics companies. He seeks a pardon because, as a dual citizen of the U.S. and Canada, crossing the border can be very difficult.

Taylor is a productive citizen, but he still owes the state $51,254 in unpaid fines. He claims the amount due has multiplied to six figures because a collection agency added sizable penalties. The details are all confidential under state law.

When Taylor said, “I don’t have that kind of money,” the governor told Taylor he’s willing to reduce the fine.

“I think you’ve made some strides and I’d be, you know, inclined to support a grant, but not with none of this having been satisfied,” DeSantis said. “So we’ll take it under advisement and see if we can come up with a path forward to be able to satisfy that and then go from there. And I’m not opposed to, sometimes there are fines that are too much. I’m not opposed to paring some back, but to pay nothing, I think, is a big problem.”

DeSantis holds out clemency as an option for those who can’t pay, but it’s a hopeless alternative when there are an estimated 430,000 felons who don’t have the money to pay their fees and fines.

It takes years for clemency petitions to be decided. The state is groaning under a backlog of more than 10,000 clemency cases, and they are considered only four times a year. At the Dec. 4 meeting, there were 70 cases on the agenda. Do the math. At that rate, it will take more than 30 years to eliminate the case backlog.

The governor, like his predecessors in both parties, has shown no willingness to seriously reduce the clemency backlog. If he did, he would, at a minimum, be demanding a lot more money to dispose of cases more quickly.

But the budget proposal he sent the Legislature last month seeks about $12 million next year for the Florida Commission on Offender Review, the state agency formerly known as the Parole Commission, which investigates felons who seek clemency. Under the DeSantis proposal, FCOR would have 132 employees, the same as it has now.

So it’s encouraging that DeSantis is willing to negotiate payment of fines and that he considers some fines excessive. But felons should not be compelled to wait years for their requests to be considered. That’s a cruel hoax that should not be perpetrated on the people any longer.

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

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