After years of stagnation under former State Attorney Angela Corey, innovation is finally finding its way to the State Attorney’s Office for the Fourth Judicial Circuit in Northeast Florida covering Duval, Clay and Nassau counties.
Melissa Nelson, Corey’s successor, has used the last 18 months to begin trading the “tough on crime” policies and rhetoric of yesteryear for the kinds of “smart on crime” initiatives that conservatives have championed to great success across the nation.
As its name implies, “smart on crime” justice is about moving away from policies derived from gut instinct or anecdotal experience and toward those based on data and analysis.
While such reforms remain in their early stages, if Nelson continues to sustain and broaden them, they hold the potential to make justice in the Fourth Circuit fairer and more efficient, and provide for a safer community as a result.
Among the brightest spots in Nelson’s vision is expanding diversion and civil citation programs, which seek to steer individuals away out of the criminal justice system. Diversion programs use alternatives to the usual criminal court system to process certain low-level, nonviolent offenders. Rather than rely on criminal sanctions that often do little more than force offenders to languish in a jail cell, diversion programs require these individuals to undergo substance abuse, mental health or other treatment.
Diversion and civil citation programs are powerful because they operate early in our justice system. Jailing someone is an incredibly disruptive experience for the individual and an exceedingly costly one for the rest of us. In Duval County, the average cost of a year in jail for a single offender is around $22,000.
Nationally, even jail stays of 24 to 72 hours have been found to increase the risk that an individual will commit new crimes in the future. Meanwhile, an arrest record — let alone a conviction — can follow an individual for life, leading to future employment, housing and social costs.
By embracing “smart on crime” justice, Northeast Florida finds itself in good company. Conservative-led jurisdictions across the country are beginning to experiment with new ideas and reap prodigious returns on the back of evidence-based reforms.
For example, in Texas — which helped to kick start this conservative renaissance on criminal justice — reforms over the last decade have allowed the state to lower its crime, incarceration and recidivism rates. These remarkable results have caught the eye of politicians nationwide and shifted the political paradigm of criminal justice issues in favor of reform.
Nelson’s recent decision to participate in a data project headed by a professor at Florida International University and funded by the MacArthur Foundation is one of her most promising moves to date. This project will collect data that looks at how prosecutors reached various decisions, potentially revealing concerning trends as well as racial or other biases.
Critically, Nelson has agreed to make the data public, regardless of what they show. This is no small step. Officials have often been hesitant to publicize data out of fear of what they might reveal, which helps ensure that data remain all too rare in the criminal justice field.
It also means that the information gleaned from this project will not only be essential to thoughtful, effective reforms in Northeast Florida, but potentially for cities and towns across the country. It is, in short, the scaffolding around which future improvements will be built.
Of course, as valuable as all of this data will be, there are still areas primed for immediate action. Bail reform is one such area in which Nelson ought to do more. Here, it would be wise for Nelson to follow the lead of her counterpart, State Attorney Aramis Ayala, in the Ninth Judicial Circuit in Central Florida. Ayala recently announced a new policy to reduce money bail demands in certain nonviolent misdemeanor cases — a move that will reduce the jail population while allowing authorities to focus on higher-risk defendants.
Altering the path of criminal justice can, at times, feel like trying to turn a cruise ship with a canoe paddle. As such, the achievement of the kinds of returns that “smart on crime” justice can deliver requires discipline and long-term commitment. Nelson’s initial moves suggest that she just might have both.
If that proves true, residents of Northeast Florida can expect a more equitable and effective justice system in the years to come.