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Goal of New Florida 'Project on Accountable Justice': Less Crime for Less Money

November 26, 2012 - 6:00pm

Florida State University announced Tuesday the formation of a new bipartisan think tank devoted to assisting policymakers in reforming the Sunshine State's criminal justice system.

The organization's chairman says one of the proposed reforms is something as simple as making it cheaper -- if not free -- for prisoners to call home.

Its about less crime for less money, Dr. Allison DeFoor, chairman of the newly launched Project on Accountable Justice (PAJ), tells Sunshine State News. The justice system over the next decade or so is going to be asked to produce quantifiable results at a level it hasnt in my lifetime.

DeFoor says the PAJ will fill a gap in the intellectual marketplace, combining as it will the twin criminal justice pillars of academic research and practical proposals, in an independent and bipartisan forum.

We want to be Switzerland in this debate, he tells the News. Were trying to do this in a very [ideologically] neutral environment.

The PAJ, housed at FSUs John Scott Dailey Florida Institute of Government, includes several major Democratic and Republican players on its board of directors: FSU president emeritus Sandy DAlemberte; former Florida attorney general Richard Doran; Former FAMU president, professor, and current interim dean of the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice Fred Gainous; St. Petersburg College president Bill Law; Jeff Kronschnabl, instructor in charge of St. Petersburg Colleges Public Policy and Administration Baccalaureate Program; dean of the FSU College of Social Sciences and Public Policy David Rasmussen; Tallahassee Community College president Jim Murdaugh; and Baylor Universitys Institute for Studies of Religion director Byron Johnson.

DeFoor himself is no stranger to the Florida political scene. His rumincludes stints as a county judge, circuit judge, Monroe County sheriff, Republican nominee for lieutenant governor in 1990 as running-mate to Gov. Bob Martinez, and vice chairman of the Republican Party of Florida from 2002-2006. Hes also an Episcopal priest with experience in prison ministry.

He tells the News there is an emerging consensus, among both leftists and conservatives, that Floridas criminal justice system is in need of serious reform, and that there is no conflict between effectively cracking down on crime and doing so in a way that is cost-efficient.

[The justice system] today is where public education was 25 years ago, he says. We have plenty of measurements of what were putting into the system, but the question is: what are we getting for the money? And thats where the rubber's going to meet the road for what were trying to do.

He says that about a third of released inmates end up back in prison within three years.

If a third of the bridges built by the Department of Transportation fell down within three years, youd be outraged, he says, echoing similar sentiments expressed in other forums by former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Newt Gingrich.

The PAJ will contribute its own original research to the data that is already available if not always well-known among citizens and state policy makers.

DeFoor says that data suggest Florida needs to move away from an emphasis on incarceration and harsh penalties, and toward proven means of reducing recidivism: substance abuse treatment, improved literacy, education, strengthening the family environment, and faith-based prison ministries.

We can prove these things work and save money; thats data, not opinion, he insists.

While he was reluctant to discuss specific proposals that will be made to legislators before they convene for the 2013 session, DeFoor did say the PAJ would be taking a look at internal system governance, reforming pre-trial release standards, and even policies as simple as telephone rates.

Right now the Department of Corrections has got a pretty extortionary system for people calling their mammas back home, he says. But guess what? The data are pretty clear: The more family contact you have, the less likely you are to recidivate. Heck, we ought to be paying them to make the phone call.

He says plans are underway to convene a virtual public forum for concerned citizens sometime before Christmas to receive input from concerned citizens on what the state should do to reform its justice system.

The wisdom of the folks is a lot better than the wisdom of the few, he opines.

He says Floridians can expect for more concrete research and policy proposals to be unveiled in the weeks ahead, and he thinks state legislators and justice officials will be paying attention.

"Today, we announced the circus is in town; pretty soon, he promises, well start talking about the acts.

Reach Eric Giunta ategiunta@sunshinestatenews.comor at (954) 235-9116.

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