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Why an Independent Florida Corrections Commission Is a Bad Idea

March 25, 2015 - 7:00pm

The newspapers are awash every day with stories about the Florida Department of Corrections and the systemic problems a longstanding culture has created.

There is a call by Sen. Rob Bradley and the Florida Senate for creation of an independent Florida corrections commission. We believe such a commision would create more problems than it seeks to resolve, and Ive testified on this matter on behalf of the Florida Smart Justice Alliance.

There are six reasons why we oppose the idea of a commission:

1. The idea of an independent commission is not a new idea, its been tried before and it failed. Why? Because legislatures almost always relegate the recommendations to some shelf and theyre never seriously considered. A better idea that has real teeth to ensure reform is the creation of a joint legislative committee comprised of senators and representatives who will hold the department accountable and will certainly carry more weight.

The departments obvious problem, though, is a lack of continuity of leadership and new DOC Secretary Julie Jones is entitled to some time to reform the department and start changing its culture. A rush to judgment wont help the situation.

2. The commission will just create another level of bureaucracy that is unneeded. Additionally, it will inherently create problems between management and line staff in what commissioners say, even if its inadvertent.

3. Part of thecommission's mission is to investigate corruption, which is all well and good, except thats the job for trained law enforcement officers, not civilians, no matter how well-intentioned they are. FDLE has signed a MOU with the department to investigate various issues. Lets see how that works first before we assume it will fail.

4. The commission will invariably and accidentally stumble into matters FDLE may very well be investigating, which will complicate matters and could even damage an investigation. Thats why when most state agencies have FDLE investigations, they back off of internal investigations to ensure that they dont impede the work of law enforcement, which must be paramount in getting witness statements, maintaining timeliness and so forth.

5. The commission is required to meet at the prisons. This is a good idea on the surface, but its foolhardy when one thinks about it. Having civilians and commission staff investigating on a prison ground is just too much fanfare and publicity at a time when serious work needs to be undertaken by law enforcement agencies doing their job.

6. The commission is authorized to issue subpoenas. So, the commission is going to seek sworn testimony from officers or maybe even inmates? This is a recipe for disaster. Having trained law enforcement officers seeking sworn testimony is one thing; having a bunch of civies doing it is just going to put officers' and inmates' lives in danger.

Trust me, when officers or inmates leave a commission meeting, the comments and transcripts will quickly become public and will make for great newspaper headlines. The issues, however, for the department shouldnt be fodder for speculation or untimely leaks, because it could have dire or deadly consequences for those officers or inmates.

Beyond these six reasons, this legislation calls for a prison chaplain to be on the commission, and for the life of me I cant justify why a chaplain -- more so than any other staff person at a prison -- should be serving. They cant even share what they may have heard in confession.

No, this idea of an independent commission is a poor substitute for real oversight by the Legislature, which is exactly the body that needs to ensure that the promised reforms will occur. It also means that the Legislature is going to have to pony up the money to make any reforms possible.

The best chance for reform is one acknowledging that beyond custody and control, the department needs to care for their charges. That means trying to truly be about correcting inmates so they dont come back to prison.

The Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, under former DJJ Secretary Wansley Walters and current Secretary Christy Daly, conducted a major overhaul of DJJ, taking it from a residential-based department to one that instead focused on the front-end, with appropriate diversion and prevention. With specialized services, not a cookie-cutter approach, DJJ has rewarded taxpayers with an ever-declining rate of juvenile crime.

Texas is the gold standard for reforming corrections. Theyve focused on behavioral health care services for inmates and adopting innovative approaches that have allowed them to close prisons, yet still hold criminals accountable for their actions.

Florida has the potential under Gov. Rick Scott to do the same thing. His new secretary needs to be given the time to enact her reforms, learn about the key deficiencies that need to be addressed, including appropriate pay for correctional officers and proper staffing levels that will be safer for the officers -- and the inmates.

This commission, like the last one, will be an utter failure. Instead, the Legislature should establish its own joint committee to keep everyones feet to the fire, because in the final analysis, the buck stops with them and the governor -- not with some indie commission.

Barney Bishop III is the president and CEO of the Florida Smart Justice Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates for enlightened criminal justice polices that maintain public safety as Job No. 1.

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