Turning the Tide: Chris King’s Platform to Reform Florida’s Criminal Justice System
I’m running for Governor because I know Florida can do so much better with a leader who has the courage to accept nothing less than transformational change. And over the past year I’ve been proud to lead the field with a bold, progressive agenda — whether that’s ensuring access to affordable housing, expanding opportunity with free community college and trade school, opposing the sugar industry’s vise-grip on our environment, or fighting for meaningful gun safety.
But over the past year, it’s become clear to me that we can’t right the wrongs in our state without confronting our broken criminal justice system. Our state’s incarceration rate has skyrocketed over the past twenty years, nearly doubling since 2005. Florida now imprisons 960 of every 100,000 residents — and this systemic mass incarceration disproportionately affects African Americans.
For too long we have incentivized overcriminalization and penalized second chances. We must turn this tide and reform a system that needlessly criminalizes millions of nonviolent men and women.
To do that, I’ll focus on six reforms:
- Restoring voting rights
- Reducing mass incarceration
- Ending private prisons
- Legalizing marijuana
- Ending the death penalty
- Ending the school-to-prison pipeline
Simply put, Florida imprisons too many people.
So-called “tough on crime” policies like mandatory minimums and gain-time caps keep nonviolent offenders in prison for far too long, and a lack of civil citation programs forces the imprisonment of folks who don’t pose a danger to others, or who might otherwise be easily rehabilitated. This leads Florida to incarcerate many more nonviolent, misdemeanor offenders than it should — people who don’t deserve to go to jail, but who are presented no other option.
Correctional systems and public prisons all over the country have been pushed to the brink, putting both prisoners and correctional staff at risk. Here in Florida, we’ve allowed the private prison lobby to cannibalize our public corrections system. Rick Scott promised lowered costs from private prisons, but those savings haven’t panned out. That hasn’t stopped him from giving out private prison contracts like candy, further entrenching a system that incentivizes imprisonment for profit rather than rehabilitation.
All this comes at great cost to our state, to be sure. Florida spends $142 million taxpayer dollars on private prisons each year, and ranks behind only Texas in the highest number of inmates housed in private prisons. In addition, the imprisonment of thousands of nonviolent offenders who should have other sentencing options costs the state hundreds of millions of dollars per year.
But the real cost here is in human lives. In November of 2017, Florida housed 96,639 inmates, with an exceptionally onerous impact on the black community. Look at the raw numbers: there are only 626 white inmates for every 100,000 white Floridians, but that rate skyrockets to 2,555 black inmates for every 100,000 black Floridians.
The Florida I know believes in second chances, but the leaders we’ve had for the last twenty years sure don’t. Folks who fall into this broken system — who serve their time and pay their debt to society — have little chance of regaining the rights they’ve lost, to say nothing of their lifelong stigmatization in employment or opportunity. There are 1.6 million Floridians crying out to have their civil rights restored and their calls have fallen on deaf, unsympathetic ears.
It is time to move past this culture of overcriminalization.
A few months ago, I was at Markham Elementary School in Pompano Beach for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, as part of a service project. I was chatting with this incredible young boy, and found that I had been building a bench with his father. He introduced himself and asked me where I stood on the restoration of voting rights to former felons — and I was happy to tell him that it had been a part of my campaign since the very beginning. Then he told me his story.
For over a decade, this kind, gentle father had been treated like a second class citizen by the state of Florida. He had a small drug crime on his record, and that crime followed him wherever he went. He felt that stigmatization every time he applied to a job, and every election day when he was denied the right to vote. It didn’t just affect him, it affected his whole family — his wife and his sons. The state of Florida never allowed him to forget his mistake, and even actively prevented him from moving past it. That same reality is shared by far too many.
1.6 million Floridians live as second-class citizens just like that father, and they should be allowed to reenter society. I support Amendment 4 and I’ll be proud to enforce it and return voting rights to former felons as Governor. But that’s just a first step.
If we want to have a lasting impact, we have to curb the incentivization of mass incarceration. To do that, I’ll pursue the elimination of harsh mandatory minimums, reform gain-time policies, and expand civil citation and diversion programs to bring about meaningful sentencing reform for non-violent offenders. Furthermore, I’ll fight to end Florida’s private prison contracts.
Year after year we see that private prisons not only fail to reduce costs, but also fail to reduce recidivism while ratcheting up an inexcusable record of abuse and inhumane conditions. By ending private prisons and instituting sentencing reform, we aim to reduce mass incarceration by 25 percent over the next five years and 50 percent over the next 10 years.
In addition to these correctional reforms, the time has come for the legalization of marijuana. If we look at other states that have legalized, regulated and taxed the sale of marijuana, we are presented with two opportunities. The first is a reduction in tension between communities and law enforcement. Over the decades, the criminalization of marijuana has disproportionately targeted communities of color — in Pinellas and Hillsborough County, African Americans are six times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession as white people. That trend is wholly unjust and unsustainable, and full legalization begins to right that wrong.
The second opportunity is economic. When we end criminalization we reduce spending on mass incarceration and officer time, presenting substantial cost savings from the criminal justice system and relieving pressure on correctional facilities. More than that though, as we regulate and tax the sale of marijuana, Florida stands to gain a substantial sum of revenue that could be used to reinvest in our communities. For years we’ve left that money on the table. I think that’s a mistake, and I’m ready to fix it.
I strongly believe that one of the gravest stains on the moral character of our state is the continued use of the death penalty. A civilized society is measured by its authority, but also by its restraint. And when it comes to the death penalty, the weight of this punishment falls disproportionately on the poor and people of color, and far too often on the innocent. Furthermore, the myth of the death penalty as a deterrent to violent crime does not bear out. I would pursue every avenue at my disposal to end this cruel punishment.
Each of these reforms work together to end the school-to-prison pipeline. I anticipate these reforms could yield approximately $1 billion in cost savings and revenue, and I would challenge the legislature to allocate those funds to long-term priorities for the betterment of the state: childcare and early childhood education, K-12 education, state colleges and universities, and the justice and corrections system. In such a way, we’ll turn the tide — reversing the school to prison pipeline by expanding school programming, funding free community college and trade school, and helping to enforce the law and better rehabilitate inmates.
This unjust, immoral system has already been perpetuated for too long. But that perpetuation must not be seen as permanent. These reforms are well within our power to carry out, and the benefits they would yield are of far greater worth than the dollars they would save. Their true value is leading us to acknowledge the better angels of our nature: grace, second chances and an opportunity to right the wrongs of the past.
Enough is enough — let’s turn this tide.