In less than two years, Gov. Rick Scott has put his draconian brand on every aspect of life in Florida, from education to the elderly and the criminal justice system. I have already written about education and the elderly. This article is about the criminal justice system, of which I know a great deal.
In 1969, a 19-year-old recently discharged veteran was arrested and convicted of rape, a charge he has vehemently denied for more than 40 years. When he arrived in the state of Florida penitentiary, he was a confused adolescent and barely literate. He was given two life sentences – to run consecutively.
He was determined to make the best of what was left of his life. He nagged the authorities until they agreed that he could take courses toward becoming educated. His efforts and determination paid off well and, in just a few years, he earned the G.E.D. and accumulated 70 credits toward a bachelor’s degree, when the state decided to abandon its education program. Still, he had become savant in teaching math and was given the task of tutoring other inmates. All of his students were able to pass the math part of the G.E.D. exam.
In the early 1980s, the state made the progressive move that made it possible for lifers to apply for and be granted parole. When this inmate applied for parole, he had a most impressive record of prison adjustment, having avoided being written up for a violation in many years. That, coupled with his educational advancement and service to other inmates, made him an ideal candidate for parole. He was given what was tantamount to a parole date in 1991. Because of a misunderstood remark he made to a prison employee, his parole date was suspended and he has languished in prison ever since.
The inmate, who has spent all of his essentially productive years behind bars, is now a senior citizen. Through the years, many concerned people have come to his aid and have tried to influence the Parole Commission to consider that rehabilitation is as much a goal as retention. During his last parole hearing, the all-white commission stated that it was his crime, not his rehabilitation, that influence their decision to deny this man parole. I am determined to believe that it was not his crime but his race.
There are two compelling reasons why I firmly believe that it is race rather than crime. There are several hundred murderers who have received parole through this commission, including a young white man who butchered an 84-year-old woman, took her car and went to Disney World. He was paroled after serving about 11 years.
The other reason is that not once did the “victim” come forth to testify against the granting of parole. (In fact, even at the sentencing, the victim did not ask for the life sentences even though she was encouraged to provide input.)
Although the vast majority of prisoners in this
system are black, it has been many years since the Florida Parole Commission has had a black member, except for the brief recent tenure of Ms. Cassandra Jenkins.
Ms. Jenkins demonstrated that she has a firm understanding of the dual purpose of a criminal justice system vis-à-vis the Department of Corrections. Gov. Scott has demonstrated that he has not such an understanding and he has indicated his intention to appoint a person who is equally uninformed. He has used “public safety” as his only concern when it comes to parole.
No parole commission, no matter how astute, can guarantee against recidivism. What the governor has done is to serve notice on an already leery commission that it will be held responsible if a parolee commits another crime, making it nearly impossible to parole anybody. This has the effect of not having a parole system and, by extension, no need for a parole commission.
Gilbert L. Raiford is semi-retired after a career in teaching and working for the U.S. Department of State. He lives in Miami where he volunteers at homeless facilities, the Opera House in Miami and after-care school programs as a fund-raiser. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo:Gilbert L. Raiford