Florida’s Criminal Justice System Is Expensive, Unsafe and a Humanitarian Crisis

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tag: youth in hoodie sits in prison cell, head bowed

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Five years ago, I was an ordinary mom and like most people I knew nothing about the criminal justice system and quite honestly, like most, I didn’t care. It didn’t affect me. 

But one night I went to bed and that all changed. My 15-year-old daughter snuck out with other kids and our lives changed forever. They committed a crime that got them 10 years in prison and 10 years’ probation. I now became one of “those people” who make up nearly half of America, who have a family member in prison. That’s right, nearly 50%. 

Florida: Kim Lawrance (headshot), Florida juvenile justice reform advocate, smiling freckled blonde woman wearing necklace.

Kim Lawrance

It was shocking. Understanding what happened and what was going to happen became my top priority so I went back to school and obtained my master’s in criminal justice. I read about how prisons and the criminal justice system should be and quickly realized that is hardly what is happening. The correctional system lost its purpose and the laws are draconian. It’s nowhere near correctional and only making things worse. It’s not only unsustainable, it’s a humanitarian crisis. 

I often sit in visitation at the prison and look around at all the insiders with their families and wonder what did they do to end up here. What’s their story? What purpose is prison serving? Is this what people want? Now someone else lost a mother, father, child, sister or brother. Does this even help the victim? 

My daughter is an adult now and she has seen more at the age of 19 than I have or than most adults have in a lifetime. There are so many things she could be learning that are more positive and productive. She has now aged out of the teenage roller coaster but society would rather punish than provide a way to rehabilitate. 

We hear the same old cliché, “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.” Well, they are doing their time and then some. The “time” goes beyond their incarceration sentence. Society makes them remember they’re a criminal for the rest of their lives. It’s hard to find a job, find a place to live; heck, it’s even hard to find friends. 

The Philosophies of the Correctional System

There are five philosophies of corrections: retribution, incapacitation, deterrence, rehabilitation and restoration. There is no rehabilitation. Incapacitation works only while they’re locked up, but most come home. Deterrence only works if it’s certain because most people feel they won’t get caught when it comes to committing crimes. Only one of these philosophies glares out as the sole purpose of corrections and that is retribution. It’s about getting even. The real premise of retribution was fair punishment, but it’s not how it’s worked out over the years. It’s “just desserts,” it’s revenge. “You need to pay for what you did” as people say and hey, I get it. They are angry. 

The Failure of the Criminal Justice System

The decisions people make have a root cause. Prisons do not address problems. It actually adds to the problem. It’s far from rehabilitative and society still chooses to be tough on crime. Well, the tough on crime approach and 85% war on crime (inmates must serve 85% of their sentence) has miserably failed along with the unjust sentencing like mandatory minimums. 

I mean who in their right mind thinks it’s OK to give 25, 30, 40 years to life for nonviolent drug charges? This hardly fits the crime, which defines what retributivism really is. Even when the judge knows it is wrong, their hands are tied. 

As Florida Sen. Jeffrey Brandes said, “This is not a prison system that anybody can look you in the eye and tell you a person will be safe in the state’s care.” This scares me and should scare everyone. Ninety-five percent of prisoners return home to your neighborhoods. There are all walks of life in prisons: professionals, teachers, veterans, nurses, everyday people like you and me. 

Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Mark Inch admits it’s in a crisis. The Florida legislators admit it’s in a crisis. There is a lack of programs, high attrition rates for correction officers and too many prisoners in the system with idle time. Only 5% to 6% of prisoners are enrolled in educational programs. They are not learning a damn thing in there. Simply warehousing people with lots of idle time and abuse at the hands of officers is a dangerous mix. 

Some Solutions

Let prisons deal with only those who are truly dangerous. Florida is behind when it comes to data-driven effective criminal justice policies and sentencing. High-risk offenders are more successful with programs. In fact, low-risk offenders do not do well with programs and may even increase recidivism. This is why it is better for them to be out and serving their sentence in community corrections. 

There are risk tools that can identify high-risk vs. low-risk prisoners. The medium-risk offenders are the hardest to assess, but  community corrections with intense supervision is a great option for them. For low-risk, only minimal reporting is necessary. 

A few states are using kiosk reporting systems for probationers. According to the National Institute of Justice, Maryland and New York City did a pilot study on the kiosk reporting system. They reported a drop in recidivism and that it allowed more time for the probation officers to meet with medium- to high-risk offenders. What a brilliant concept! 

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures Corrections and Sentencing Work Group, 37 states participate in earned-time credits for programs. In 2009, Oregon reported a savings of $25 million for just 80 days off sentences. Programs prepare them to come home and have been proven to reduce recidivism. That’s making the community safer and a cost savings. 

How to Treat Minors

As for children, we must consider even further alternatives. Why should children be treated differently than adults when it comes to breaking the law? Because they are different than adults. We can all think of some stupid stuff we did as kids. We just don’t say it out loud. 

We must weigh in the factor that makes kids less culpable for crimes; not excusing their crime but mitigating their culpability as a teen. No one is saying they shouldn’t be held accountable, but it’s a scientific fact that their brain is not fully developed to weigh risks and consequences even into their 20s. This development is different for every individual.

As their brain grows, they will self-regulate. Understanding the process of development can help the juvenile justice system identify the right program to aid in the intervention of teens’ lives. We apply age-graded laws for driving, voting, serving on juries, serving in the military, employment and entering contracts, so why are we pulling out the “adult card” when it comes to crimes?

A Department of Juvenile Justice program has the means to offer rehabilitative programs specific to juveniles’ needs. Other options too: Restorative justice offers healing for both sides.  What’s going on in their lives? Sending a child to prison and removing them from the most important social bond — the family — only destroys their emotional well-being and they will become institutionalized. 

Adult charges label that child for life as a felon, which makes opportunities difficult like jobs and housing, and the label creates rejection from society in general. These lost opportunities only make things worse and increase recidivism

Minors spend their time basically in solitary. My daughter spent two years mostly isolated in an abandoned dorm of the prison. This is because they can’t be around adults due to the PREA Act of 2003. They are alone for chow time, rec time and for schoolwork.

There are no programs for minors in adult prisons. Education is scarce. If you do not pass the TABE test (Tests of Adult Basic Education) for the GED, there’s nothing further. They offer very few meaningful programs and a lot do not qualify for the programs. The youth group (18-24) is set up sort of like the military. They would rather the girls do 10 push-ups than learn 10 math problems or learn cognitive skills for difficult scenarios in life.

The main goal of correctional sentencing should always be public safety, which it is, but applying data-driven, effective policies to it is what the system has lost sight of, causing a great fear of offenders being on the streets. We are locking them away and for long periods of time to meet the incapacitation and retribution goal with no rehabilitation.

Between the mandatory minimums and the 85% truth-in-sentencing requirement, our budget cannot sustain the warehousing of people that has happened. Locking up does not offer crime reduction and really makes it worse. There is no rehabilitation in prison. There is no money to do so. There is no nutrition and the medical care is Third World to none. People die of neglect in prisons. The ones who do survive come home with PTSD after being locked away from society for so long, and then we expect them to be law-abiding citizens with no tools for a future.

Let’s focus on less prison and using that cost savings to offer programs in community corrections. For those who are in prison, let’s offer them programs too. If they are not a problem offender, then offer incentives like gain time awards toward completion of programs. We need to address these draconian laws and sentences.

Florida has many bills that would address all these issues. Let’s pass these bills and add retroactivity. By offering incentives and rehabilitation, it is a cost savings for the whole state. It also reduces recidivism and increases public safety. It is time we listen to the data and pass some meaningful reform this legislative session.

As Harry E. Allen, a professor and author at the University of Louisville, said, “It is hard to identify the benefits inmates gain from prison, but the harm done there is readily seen. If you want to increase the crime problem, incite men to greater evil, and intensify criminal inclinations and proclivities, then lock violators up in prison for long periods, reduce their outside contacts, stigmatize them and block their lawful employment when released, all the while setting them at tutelage under the direction of more skilled and predatory criminals. I know of no better way to gain your ends than these.” 

Kim Lawrance is a Florida juvenile justice reform advocate and mother of a directly impacted teenager.

14 thoughts on “Florida’s Criminal Justice System Is Expensive, Unsafe and a Humanitarian Crisis

  1. Kim I just want to say but I agree with what you said and especially when it comes to children and giving them life sentences I did little over 4 years at Lowell’s finest the things that I personally saw went through and endured was something that will forever be burned in me especially when it comes to the children those are supposed to be the children of the future but instead our society locks them away instead of taking the time to figure out what they really really need? One of my dearest friends she was a y o from the time she was 14 years old should I be classified as 21 she’s not only been raped by officers let me say that again she has been raped by officers and inmates all before the age of 20 that is what the system is doing for children and right now she’s fighting for her life because they gave gave that Baby a life sentence with no parole what even the new law that came up they can’t give a minor life without a date she still fighting to get a date she’s 27 now she’s been in there as long as she was alive on the outside she’s been in there just as long this is so very damaged a lot of things going to change and I agree with you about I truly believe that only like the sickest of the sick should be in there. And as for all the ignorant ass officers male and female making that nasty ass comments they’re making boy I can’t wait till you guys make it behind the fence. And believe me over half you guys will see behind those bars because you guys are probably more twisted then a lot of people that are in prison. Oh but you guys wear that badge I forgot in that ugly ass uniform and you think you’re untouchable so you think you can do whatever you want and treat the inmates however you want but in all actuality the men are perverts and pedophiles most of them the women are on this power trip because they’re so intimidated by the inmates so they’re trying to prove a point I have never met nastier women I would much rather live with them lifers any day then to be around women CO’s and actually the officers they got like one big Cesspool scandal going on 2 they’re all sleeping with each other in the officers when they find out did the officers are messing with inmates so much retaliation goes on. And I know firsthand them cutting the visitation of the inmates to reduce the contraband that was the craziest thing they could have did they kept putting me under investigation because I had real-world stuff and I was before I even. Visitation??? The officers most of the officers let me rephrase that there was some good officers and I did meet some good officers but at the end of the day they stand together they band together. I was under investigation for 5 months and 19 days for that PREA thing you’re talkin about that’s a joke to they put the girls in confinement well the officers are still in the compound under a so-called investigation? But yet they’re still in the dorms around the girls a lot of them get promoted it’s the craziest thing I’ve ever seen. It took the sergeant that I was under investigation for he went to a different compound two or three days after he left the compound then they put me back on the compound but everybody he grew up with the officers is a very uncomfortable situation the new colonel Pride what’s her name show me that I’m not welcome on her compound had me moved to a minimum security compound which my custody was maximum security to keep their little distorted Secrets or whatever they have going on on the annex at Lowell yes the annex? I personally think that all them officers need to be psych to even put on that uniform. just like they do the inmates they have to cite clear them for things every officer should go through it a long field of Psych and they should know their background history this because Lieutenant Turner’s not the only one they got arrested for being a pedophile Butterfield also got arrested for being a pedophile just saying he was trying to beat and get his job back but he never did make it back on the compound those are the kind of people who watch over children I always wondered what Turner sick obsession with the y O’s were

  2. Good article Kim. There are always those that are uninformed and disagree. Those of us personally affected must continue to tell our stories. It’s time to make sure the general public is educated and the people that have no idea how unjust our laws are or how inhumane our prison system is, become informed. Keep telling your story.

    • Thank you. So many of us are affected. No worries, I’ll continue to do what’s right.

      • Hey Kim,

        It’s such a great thing what you are doing. The things talked about in the replays and your article not only go on in female prisons but Male prisons as well. You know me personally and what I’ve been through and you know that bbn I have first hand experience about what goes on inside those gates.

  3. Sir rather then spending your time writing such IGNORANT comments to a mother of an incarcerated child you should probably hit your knees and pray to never see the other side of the fence like many of your wonderful counterparts in the dept. Of corrections because as I always told the IGNORANT officers like your self NEVER IN A MILLION YEARS COULD I WEAR YOUR UNIFORM NOR WOULD I EVER WANT TO BUT YOU SIR CAN ALWAYS BE BLESSD WITH WEARING MINES. They make those blues in all sizes and they don’t discriminate with who they will throw into those blues. Or maybe u should pray one of your family members never have a drink to many leaving a family function and receive a DUI or better yet hit someone and kill them. See my point here is you are no better then anyone of us you sir can very quickly become A NUMBER and property of the state of FL. Do not ever tell a mother they should of better raised their children my mother sacrificed her whole life in raising me correctly And I MADE POOR DECISIONS on my own. U have a wonderful evening and I pray an inmate doesn’t jump on your hateful IGNORANT self!!!

    People like him are the ones put to watch over us In the department of corrections. He Completely missed the WHOLE point of the article like an idiot. Cuz as you see they need minimal education to work in the FL DOC and it shows. As for drug dealers ruining homes etc etc I am someone who has faught drug addiction for 16 years WE HAVE A CHOICE TO RECOVER AND SEEK HELP or continue in our self destructing behaviors blame can not be shifted onto dealers ONLY with that being said ignorance is running rampant in our society hence why these cos get jumped on and attacked when they come to work. Becuz they choose to say such IGNORANT things and treat us less then or like dirt when we are already down. The criminal justice system does nothing to better us to release us back into society nor does it do anything to reform us they just lock us away for years at a time and then release us more damaged then b4. CHANGE MUST COME AND CHANGE IS COMING NOW.
    Former Inmate Cardoso #L96576 NEVER JUST A NUMBER

  4. C/O Paine….it comes with no surprise that you are missing the bigger picture. The sentencing structure for our youth makes no sense. Perhaps to someone like you, it does. But to a rational mind, a mind that doesn’t think that the many different types of abuse dished out daily on any given compound here in the state of Florida is okay, we think to sentence a youthful offender to 10, 20, 30 years or more sends a message that we as a society give up on them. That we as a society have no belief in them. Are you a Daddy C/O Paine?

  5. I am a mother of a son in FDOC , he was 17yrs old when he was sentenced to 40 yrs in prison for trafficking, he had no priors and was set up by an informant that he had known since second grade. He was bo kingpin or cartel in. Which the laws were made for. For someone who works in the system you seem very ignorant to all that happens to these children . Maybe you are one of those who turn a blind eye or even abuse them.
    Please educate yourself in what really happens and not judge every case as all violent drug dealers.
    I will never stop the fight to get my son home and to change laws in hope this does not happen to any more children.

  6. You have no idea of what happens to children in those places. God forbid anything happens to your family. Fyi. 50 % of family members have someone in prison. You must be lucky one. Give it time. It will happen to your family too. It can happen to anyone at any age. Do not feel you are exempt. When it happens you will quickly understand the corrupt system.

  7. First of all Dennis Massey, I work at FLDOC and there are a number of youthful offenders who get sentenced to 10-20-30 years, even more. And your explanation that they get “waived” up is vague and misplaced. Anyways, I agree with you in principle that we have a cultural failure on our hands.

    What trouble me most is that this is yet another article imploring everyone to consider drug crimes as somehow less pernicious than the oh so abhorrent “violent crimes.” First of all, drug dealers ruin more lives than 99% of the violent offenders in prison. They destroy homes, at a rate not comparable to the typically isolated instance of a violent crime. Many times, a violent crime is the result of the
    very drugs that were dealt by the “non-violent” drug dealer. Not to mention the fact the recidivism is LOWEST among “violent” criminals, and HIGHEST among drug dealers.

    Violent crimes have been stigmatized and over publicized as societies great evil. When in truth they are usually isolated cases involving drugs or maybe a fight that didn’t reflect the typical behavior of the perpetrator. And yet you say these are the people who deserve the “harsher punishment?”

    This trend needs to be reversed. Reasonable people must see that the drug dealers are in fact the more pernicious of the two.

    • Actually I’m saying that only the predators should stay inside. Those like Manson bundi. You know, like serial killers and rapists. Those ones. I’d like to see Incentivized rehabilitation. 65% If you’re doing well and you do what you’re supposed to and you take classes and make positive changes, I see nothing wrong with coming home at 65% It would make your job a lot easier so you should want to see that too.

  8. Obviously your child committed an act that put her in the Adult System. Juveniles in Florida don’t receive 10 years in the system. They get waived up if their crime warrants it. Try teaching better decision making at home and save us all some trouble.

    • Message to those that don’t understand …Feel free to copy/paste

      For those that don’t understand …if you knew what I know about what goes on in there and all the corruption, AND YOUR kid, spouse, parent, sibling or any family member or loved one was in there, you’d be fighting too.

      Don’t think it can’t happen? Nearly half of America has a loved one locked up. Oh not you?

      Well I know plenty of people who have left a bar after a few drinks. That will get you locked up too and It’s only luck if caught or not or if a tragedy happens.

      Drugs? NO ONE’S family is immune to addiction. Mandatory minimums can get them years in Florida, and while they’re recovering in prison, just know they’ll be even further traumatized.

      Kids making bad choices too. Think your kids won’t? Think again. Think about all the dangerous viral challenges they participate in and lose their own life over. Crime participation is no different, but is judged very differently. Peers are very influential and especially the opposite sex. Period.

      The system needs reform in order to bring them home better. Oh, you don’t care? Well, they come home and could be your neighbor. Let’s make them better and incentivize rehabilitation.

    • I Hope that none of your loved ones ever make a mistake, that could change their lives forever.