Crist's hard line on crime pricey

Leaders in both parties indicate they'll back his Anti-Murder Act.

By Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler
Published March 3, 2007

TALLAHASSEE - As Florida's attorney general, Charlie Crist couldn't convince lawmakers to pass a costly measure aimed at keeping violent felons off the street - not even in the wake of the high-profile child murders of Jessica Lunsford and Carlie Brucia.

But the tough-on-crime former senator is now governor, and he's popular with leaders of both parties.

Crist wants the Anti-Murder Act to be the first thing passed during the legislative session that begins Tuesday. Despite the multimillion-dollar price tag, even bigger than originally estimated, Republican and Democratic leaders have indicated they'll oblige by the end of this week.

But even those who support the legislation's sentiment worry about the potential financial burden on Florida's prison system and on local courts and jails, which already strain under the weight of earlier corrections policies and laws such as "Zero Tolerance" and "10-20-Life."

"We all want to make sure our communities are safe, that our children are protected," said Rep. Curtis Richardson, D-Tallahassee. "But we're locking up more and more of our citizens, and this is going to have a tremendous fiscal impact."

The Anti-Murder Act would require that violent felons who violate probation be jailed until a judge decides whether they should be sent back to prison. Current law allows some to post bail while awaiting trial.

The legislation outlines more than two dozen crimes qualifying someone as a "violent felony offender of special concern," from rape and attempted murder to computer pornography and arson. Under the law, judges would be able to impose stiffer penalties for probation violations.

The practice of jailing probation violators is already in place because of a Corrections Department policy adopted in 2003, after the murder of 11-year-old Carlie Brucia. The Anti-Murder Act would put that practice into law for the most violent, habitual criminals.

Proponents say the law will ensure dangerous criminals remain behind bars, and that any cost is worth the lives it will save.

"I don't know how you can put a price tag on a human life," said Sen. Paula Dockery, R- Lakeland, sponsor of the Senate version of the bill. "The government's responsibility is public safety. And these are the bad guys."

Moreover, it would allow the Corrections Department to relax its zero-tolerance policy on minor probation violations by people convicted of less serious, nonviolent crimes.

"When Anti-Murder passes, we're getting to the heart of the dangerous criminals," Dockery said. "When that happens, we may not need zero tolerance like we have now."

Florida's current prison population is more than 90,000. If passed, Anti-Murder is expected to land about 2,500 additional offenders in prison within five years. That's the equivalent of two prisons.

The state would have to spend nearly $270-million for the additional jail beds, according to an analysis by the Senate staff.

Crist's proposed budget for next year includes $22-million to start adding that prison capacity.

The $270-million price tag for prison beds does not include the cost of enforcement to local governments, which Senate staffers concluded is indeterminate but potentially significant.

Violent offenders who break the terms of their probation would have to be housed in county jails at county expense.

While that's already the case in many counties including Hillsborough and Pinellas, Senate staffers caution that there is no good data to show exactly how many offenders statewide are currently jailed to await a hearing after being charged with violating probation.

So it's impossible to say for sure whether the law would significantly increase the burden on county jails and courts.

"The jury is out on that," said Bernie McCabe, Pinellas-Pasco state attorney. "But anticrime legislation is very popular - who's going to vote against something that jails sex offenders? I just try not to panic until the water starts rising real high."

Courts and county jails are already dealing with the effects of tough-on-crime measures passed in recent years.

The 10-20-Life bill passed under Gov. Jeb Bush mandates specific sentences for anyone who commits a crime while armed. Another requires that convicts serve at least 85 percent of their sentences.

In 2003, the Corrections Department adopted a zero-tolerance policy toward all probation violations, ordering probation officers to report even minor violations, such as not paying a parking fine. Violators are typically held in county jails until a judge sees them.

In Hillsborough, Zero Tolerance increased jail costs by about 18 percent the first year, from $8.4-million for inmates brought in on technical violations in 2003 to more than $10-million in 2004.

To handle all the court hearings for probation violators, Hillsborough last March set up a separate court where one judge handles nothing but cases of technical violations, such as failing to keep a job. Polk and Orange counties have similar arrangements.

"We had a huge backlog when Zero Tolerance first started," said Col. David Parrish, head of Hillsborough's jails. "But now we're moving these cases through and the impact is falling to the state prisons."

That's what concerns some lawmakers.

"Every year I've been here, we've passed legislation to get tough on crime," said Rep. Yolly Roberson, D-North Miami Beach, a legislator since 2002. "But we're still having to build more prisons. It's time that we start looking at the alternatives."

She said the state needs to invest more in prison education and rehabilitation programs so inmates have skills and resources to start new, crime-free lives when they're released.

Crist proposes spending $8.6-million more next year for inmate education programs and substance abuse treatment.

Asked to address legislators' concerns about the Anti-Murder bill's costs, Crist replied: "I'm concerned about the long-term impacts of not passing this. We've seen children murdered, raped. That breaks my heart. I am looking forward to the chance to make Florida more safe."

Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at 850 224-7263 or svansickler@sptimes.com.


Anti-Murder Act: the basics

The proposal: Require that violent felons who violate probation be held without bail until a judge decides whether to send them back to prison or keep them on probation.

Judges also would be able to impose stiffer penalties for probation violations.

The legislation outlines more than two dozen crimes that could qualify someone as a violent offender, from rape and attempted murder to computer pornography and arson.

The impact: The state prison system will need 2,505 additional beds over the next five years, and the increase in caseloads and jail populations on local governments could be significant, according to a Senate analysis.

The cost: A Senate analysis shows the state will need $270-million to build the prison beds. Crist's proposed budget for next year includes $22-million to start building them.

Crist's public safety budget, in millions

$22To start building 1,353 beds that will be needed during the first three years of the Anti-Murder Act.

$147.3To build another 4,000 new prison beds.

$3.7To add 50 full-time investigators to the year-old cyber crimes unit of the Attorney General's Office, which proposes stiffening the penalties against Internet child pornographers.

$699.8For juvenile justice programs.

$8.6Additional funds for inmate education programs and substance abuse treatment.

$4.4For retention and performance incentive payments to state attorneys and public defenders.

Sources: Online Sunshine, Office of the Governor