One of the basic questions we must ask ourselves when considering criminal justice reform is: Do we really believe that people are redeemable? Our response drives our personal philosophies on how justice systems should look. As long as there is debate about humans’ ability to reform, we will not have agreement as a society about what constitutes justice.
Representing the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, the public policy voice of the Catholic Church in Florida, we enter this debate with the premise that everyone is redeemable. After all, our sacred scriptures are full of really bad people who went on to do really great things after a transformative experience.
Believing that everyone can change their lives, however, is not the same as believing that everyone will change their lives. We know that the right combination of interventions and community support is a key element in these transformations.
For too long, Florida has prided itself in being tough on crime, mostly as a result of a spike in crime about 30 years ago, leading to both harsher sentences of juveniles and a peak in support for capital punishment in the 1990s. Two examples of extreme policies are clear: trying children as adults and the use of capital punishment.
Children in adult court
The old theory of the juvenile “superpredator” justified harsher sentences of young people many years ago. This theory has now been discredited and much of the country has since abandoned juvenile life without parole sentences. However, children continue to be tried as adults. Florida, particularly, transfers more children to the adult criminal justice system than any other state. We ought not to accept the thinking that Florida’s children are somehow worse than their counterparts around the country, making such practices a necessity.
Our state has three mechanisms by which children can be tried as adults. The processes of direct file and judicial waiver can only be applied to children 14 years old and older. While we believe that no child should be transferred to the adult system because they can be held accountable for crimes in the juvenile justice system, we recognize that these laws at the very least prevent very young children from being transferred. However, the third transfer process, indictment, has no age minimum. And while it does not occur often, children ages 13 and younger can be tried as adults in Florida.
This policy must be changed to at least require the same age minimum of 14 as the other mechanisms. If we cannot agree that 9-, 10-, 11- and 12-year-old children have the ability to reform and transform their lives, then we as a society have lost hope in anyone being rehabilitated.
Similar to juvenile transfer policies, Florida is also a national outlier in its use of capital punishment. According to The Death Penalty Information Center, 20 states and Washington, D.C. have either abolished or overturned the death penalty and four others have declared gubernatorial moratoria. Of the states that do maintain the death penalty, most have not carried out an execution in many years. Only eight states carried out at least one execution in 2018. Florida was one of the five that carried out more than one.
While Florida is the country’s third most populous state, it houses the second most populous death row in the nation. It’s second to California, whose governor recently declared a moratorium of the death penalty and granted reprieve to everyone sentenced to death in that state. Duval County in Florida has historically had the highest per capita rate for inmates on death row of any U.S. county. (Note: We look forward to future reporting showing progress as Duval County has elected a new prosecutor and the Florida legislature has passed a law requiring juries be unanimous to sentence someone to death.)
In 2018, Florida tied with Texas in the country’s highest number of persons sentenced to death. And Florida leads the nation in the highest number of death row exonerees with a grand total of 29 people released from death row.
There has not been a Florida study regarding the fiscal impact of capital punishment since 2000. However, cost studies around the nation consistently conclude that the death penalty costs taxpayers significantly more than the alternative sentence of life without parole. For example, a 2016 study in Nebraska found that taxpayers paid $1.5 million more per capital case in comparison to a first-degree murder case that pursued life without parole.
Public opinion polling shows that a growing majority of people in the state and in the country prefer alternatives to the death penalty. The severe sentence of life without parole, for instance, can keep society safe without taking an additional life. There is no significant research that shows that the death penalty is necessary to keep society safe or deters future crime.
And while some murder victims’ family members hope the death penalty will provide closure for their great loss, we know many murder victims’ family members whose grief has been exacerbated by the decades of judicial uncertainty and whose key to closure was mercy and forgiveness, rather than state-sanctioned homicide. It seems as if only retribution and vengeance have kept capital punishment alive.
Florida has ended up with a punitive system of laws with a huge economic impact on our taxpayers without making our communities any safer. Let us begin a transformation of our communities with an introspective transformation of our hearts and minds.
- reinvest public dollars toward real mental health treatment of those in the justice system or youth at high risk of becoming part of the system;
- treat addiction as the disease that it is rather than the crime it has become;
- invest in strengthening families and job training since familial ties and self-sufficiency are cornerstones of keeping people out of incarceration;
- expand restorative justice opportunities that seek healing and integration of both victims and offenders.
Our radical proposal to reform criminal justice is to begin with abandoning the philosophy and confronting the bias that some people are irredeemable. From there, our society can work to restructure the corresponding policies that have arisen from those attitudes. A couple of easy first steps would be to treat children as children and end the government’s premeditated homicide of captive prisoners.
Ingrid Delgado represents the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops on issues of human life, dignity and social justice before the legislative and executive branches of government and private organizations. She initiates legislative networking with various groups, monitors and participates in the state appropriations process, and coordinates legislative and advocacy projects throughout the state.