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Thoughts on Restoring Ex-Felons Rights

The focus of today’s blog is on recent legislation signed by Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis that was introduced and passed by the GOP dominated legislature to, allegedly, implement Amendment 4. The amendment passed by a 65% majority of Floridians voting on the issue in 2018.

The amendment was intended to automatically restore voting rights to former inmates and to undo the impact of a long-held policy that unfairly punished minorities.

Most ex-prisoners in Florida not only pay for their crimes during the time they are incarcerated but usually for long after they are released from a detention facility. Florida’s criminal justice system is set up to make offenders pay and pay.

Florida gives judges very little discretion. Not only do Florida prisoners pay in time served (85% of time sentenced required for felony incarceration regardless of circumstances, behavior or other factors) but in dollars. Many criminal justice system fines are outrageous.

While incarcerated, the costs for prisoners to make and receive phone calls from family and friends are outlandish and punish not only the inmate but family and anyone who cares about them.  Let’s face it, a large majority of prisoners are low income to begin with and to try to get out of the vicious Florida criminal justice cycle is almost impossible for many former felons.

Florida tacks on about $200 million in fees for those convicted and according to some accounts, about 80% go unpaid. The system is set up to fail these people and disproportionately disenfranchises minorities.

Florida has dragged its feet, especially under the previous Governor’s administration, in restoring rights to ex-felons. Even after being forced by the general public via Constitutional Amendment, many Republican politicians showed up for the 2019 Florida Legislative Session with intent to make it difficult for ex-prisoners to vote and to implement Amendment 4 as intended by the voters.

Why? I believe they “assume” that former prisoners will vote Democratic for the most part. Some may argue that is not the case. I am still a reluctant Republican but vote independently on all issues and candidates. I like to think that most people weigh the merits of every issue and every candidate. Regardless, any assumed or imagined trend that former felons will register for any one party should not factor into human rights.

The irony is that many of today’s GOP profess strong family and Christian values. One of the major fundamental beliefs of most U.S. religions is forgiveness. The basis of Christianity is that everyone can be forgiven and start anew.  How can these same lawmakers justify putting obstacles in the way of new beginnings for ex-prisoners.

In its arrogance, the Florida Legislature, as they often do, felt they were much ‘wiser’ than the voting public and tacked on additional hurdles for ex-prisoners to jump. They ignored the intent of voters to give ex-prisoners a second chance at becoming productive members of society.

The ruling party knows full well that requiring all financial obligations to be paid will continue to keep former felons from voting and further prevent many from full participation in society. They also believe that by limiting who can vote, they will continue to hold power.

In the last days of the 2019 Florida Legislative Session, there was a reluctant agreement between the House and the Senate to allow judges to waive costs or convert them into community service hours. Each jurisdiction is going to have to implement a process, in whatever way suits it, and there will NOT be equality across the state of Florida. The following are the likely scenarios for ex-felons wanting to register to vote:

  • They could pay fines, fees and restitution in full. But, let’s face it, most ex-felons are from low income families and if and when they are able to get a minimum wage job, requiring these imposed financial obligations up front is going prevent many ex-felons from ever voting. Many states allow ex-felons to pay down their obligations; but not our 2019 Florida Legislature.

 

  • Judges could dismiss fees and fines outright, if victims approve it. This situation muddies the waters in that the intent of voters will not be applied equally across the state. Current law allows judges to waive fees and fines within 60 days of a sentence being given. With the new legislation, each circuit court will have to come up with processes and implementation guides. Our already over-burdened court system will become more backed up due to this burdensome requirement. The result is pushing an ex-felon’s right to vote even further out into the future.

 

  • Judges could convert fines, fees and restitution into community service hours which the ex-felon would have to complete. No consistency in the various jurisdictions ensures that judges won’t equally apply this option. And, what about elderly or sick ex-felons? Senator James Grant, House sponsor, responded in Floor debate that those older and sick felons who might be too weak to work off debt could work in soup kitchens.

I think it might be good for Senator Grant to work in a soup kitchen for a few days. Maybe he would experience some Christian compassion for ex-felons who have not been as fortunate as he and many other legislators have been.

Voters are smart enough to know what they are voting for and do not need to be told by the Legislature, regardless of what party is in power, what they really meant to vote for.

I know what I meant to vote for and the legislature circumvented the will of the Floridians who voted for Amendment 4.

 

 

More Thoughts on Armed Teachers

As we begin the month of April, the second month of Florida’s annual legislative session, the bills to expand the Florida Guardian program are making their way through the House and Senate chambers and I predict will likely become law.

Last week I observed the Senate Infrastructure & Security Committee take up Senate Bill 7030 with approval along party lines.  It now heads to the Senate Appropriations Committee next and then, on to the Senate Floor. House Bill 7093 is the House version of the bill and it is listed on the Special Order Calendar for April 3.

The most controversial section of the bill is expanding the Florida Guardian program to include classroom teachers. The majority of public speakers in the Senate S & I Committee were opposed to the concept of expanding the Program to classroom teachers. Current law, passed after the 2018 Marjorie Stoneman Douglas school shootings, authorized school personnel whose primary duties were not in the classroom to participate in the program. After nearly a year of meetings, the special Commission assigned to examine the MSD shootings, made several recommendations including one to expand the Guardian Program to include classroom teachers.

Many teachers, parents, school associations, students and other school employees are lobbying in opposition to the expansion of armed school personnel even though the program is voluntary for participants and school boards have the option of implementing the program. There is no available data on law enforcement but anecdotal news stories indicate that agencies and officers are split on the idea.

In my March blog, I presented pros and cons of arming teachers but wanted to clarify in my own mind whether my inclination to object to the concept was the right one. I had hoped that continuing to monitor the legislature’s committee meetings, testimony and actions, I might have a firmer conviction one way or the other.  So far, I am leaning toward my initial inclination but there is still some question for me.

As of this writing, twenty-five districts out of Florida’s sixty-seven districts participate in the Guardian Program as permitted in the 2018 school safety act. Participation in the program would continue to be voluntary on the part of any teacher, would require the school Superintendent’s approval of individual teachers for the program, and sets training requirements, including over 100 hours of firearms training. Under the proposed law, local Sheriffs would be required to offer a training program if the local school district elected to participate in the expansion.

Those who testified in the Senate I & S Committee brought up nearly all of the concerns that have bothered me over armed teachers. They talked about “what if” scenarios regarding risks of accidental discharge, mistaken identity of the good guy/gal with a gun and the bad guy/gal with a gun, storage and security for weapons and ammunition and the conflict that a teacher may find him or herself in should they be called upon to react in an active shooter situation.

What about liability and insurance? An amendment to increase the currently mandated cap of $200,000 for public institutions was voted down. When most teachers, particularly in elementary and high schools, have to supplement school supplies for their students, will someone (school district or sheriff’s office) provide guns, ammo training, and retraining?

Will teachers wear side arms or have to consider how they would quickly obtain the guns to react quickly enough? If an active shooter or shooters are using rapid fire automatic weapons, is the teacher a sitting duck?

The identification of which teachers would be armed brought up another line of questions. If teachers wear a side arm it will be obvious who the armed teachers are. If the armed teachers are identified, are they in danger of being shot first so that the active shooter can go about their destructive intent?  If they are not identifiable, will first responders be able to sort the good guys/gals from the bad guys/gals?

The proposed legislation mandates that on official law enforcement are required to confront active shooters even if they don’t have back-up. The bills require better coordination with and among responders and agencies. These were highly publicized criticisms of the MSD shooting incident.

For most people, killing another human being is unthinkable, even for highly trained law enforcement and military personnel. That is why PTSD is such a big problem worldwide. Teachers are generally nurturing and making the momentary, mental transition from nurturer to killer will be life-altering.  PTSD treatment is hard to get for our military and first responders. Will it be even harder for teachers to get?

My child is grown and as yet, I have no human grandchildren. I think about how frightening it is for parents to have to prepare their children to react in an active shooter situation. I would have been terrified to send him to school knowing his teacher was wearing a sidearm. I would also have been terrified that law enforcement may not have been able to get there in time.

Have you made up your mind yet? I would love to hear what you think.

Thoughts on Arming Teachers and staff on School Campuses

The gun debates will go on and on because the shootings will go on and on at school campuses across the USA. While new ideas for campus safety are being developed and discussed every day, the plethora weapons, and the ease with which they can be obtained continues to be rampant. That’s a story for another day.

In 2019, it’s about adjusting to the new normal which includes increasing incidents of active shooters on school campuses and elsewhere people congregate. The odds seem to be increasing.

My own state of Florida is in the process of debating the issue of armed faculty and staff. Our GOP-led legislature seems to be pretty intent on arming teachers and/or other school personnel. Currently, only 31 percent of Florida voters support armed teachers with 56% in opposition, according to a Florida Atlantic University poll. The National Rifle Association (NRA) and President Trump support arming teachers and for some Floridians, that in itself is enough to put them off the idea. And for some other Floridians, it’s accepted as gospel. But seriously, is it the will of (all or most of) the people?

The Florida Legislature was in session when the 2018 Stoneman-Douglas Valentine’s Day shooting took place. The incident changed the entire trajectory of the legislative session with many pre-planned state issues falling to the wayside to make way for a new school safety law and funding to quell the uneasiness of Florida residents with school children. The School Safety Act authorized a voluntary “Guardian Program” and some districts are participating in the 2018-19 school year.

The 2018 legislation excluded most classroom teachers but the Parkland Commission, which has been meeting since the end of the 2018 Legislative Session, has submitted its recommendations to the 2019 Florida Legislature. They are recommending expanding the Guardian Program to include classroom teachers and staff.

Under today’s potential active-shooter scenarios it would be ideal if we had trained law enforcement officers on each campus during the school day.  As it is, police departments and sheriffs’ offices are for the most part already underfunded and understaffed and need more funding just to increase staff and maintain effective training programs.

So, is the solution to arm teachers and staff who are already in the school during the school day? One could, and should, argue that schools too are often underfunded and understaffed as well. Teachers are already stretched to do more than just teach. Schools need more funding just to fulfill their academic responsibilities of having smaller classes and up-to-date teacher training and certification.

So, we either stretch law enforcement resources, stretch school resources, or find new sources of funding to increase one sector or both. Some think that the easy answer is to just arm teachers and staff since they’re there anyway. It’s not that simple. There are numerous issues surrounding arming civilians and preparing them to react in a stressful situation like an active-shooter situation.

Most school personnel would require initial and continuing weapons training. Firing range exercises and school simulations would be necessary. Ohio, my own home state, has implemented FASTER, a program to instruct faculty and staff on how to respond to violence. It is funded through charitable donations to the Buckeye Firearms Foundation and classes are free to school personnel.

Psychological screening is an obvious requirement for anyone being authorized to take up arms in active shooter situations. Even seasoned law enforcement officers need psychological and counseling services after they have been involved in a shooting situation. The FASTER program in Ohio also includes instruction on brain processes in an active shooter situation.

Racial profiling cannot be neglected in legislating and implementing armed faculty/staff programs on school grounds. Law enforcement is diligently working toward eliminating situations where racial profiling and bad actions or reactions occur in the course of protecting and serving the public through more training and sensitivity awareness and better interactions with communities.

Unfortunately, there are still pockets of our society where racial profiling continues to end in tragedy. Schools are not immune to racial profiling since they are microcosms of society and there is data that shows in some places, discipline is harsher for minority students than it is for white students. How would this play out in an active shooter situation and an armed teacher or staff member has to size up a desperate situation?

Law enforcement is striving to better interact with those who may have mental health or other disabilities that can be misinterpreted. Generally, in educational settings, teachers and staff are more aware of students with mental health or disabilities and this awareness could aid in the prevention of a devastating reaction by armed staff.

Most states that have armed faculty/staff programs for school safety require that armed school personnel must qualify for and obtain a state-authorized concealed carry permit. Nearly all states require sign off by both the sheriff and school district. Colorado law allows school districts to designate staff as security guards and carry guns without training. However, those participating in the insurance pool have specified training requirements.

Most of the information available as of this writing indicates that these programs are voluntary for the school districts. Rural school districts are more likely to utilize armed faculty/staff programs due to the distance away from law enforcement and response times. One of the most compelling arguments for arming faculty/staff on school campuses that do not have school resource officers is the ability of law enforcement to respond quickly enough to keep injuries and fatalities to a minimum.

How do students feel? Many students form bonds with some of their teachers. How would students react if they knew or suspected that a teacher they really like was armed? Could a teacher react appropriately if the student was involved in the shooting incident? Could they look into the face of a student and shoot?

Decisions need to be made on where the weapons are kept. Should the school staff member carry the weapon in a holster or keep them secured within the classroom or some other place on campus.

When law enforcement arrives, how can they tell who is the good guy/gal with a gun and who is the bad guy/gal with a gun? Alabama’s Sentry Program requires that an approved, marked, bullet-proof vest is required for the armed administrator in an active-shooter situation.

Most of the teachers I have talked to and many articles I have read indicate that teachers themselves do not want to be armed on campus. Many parents oppose it. Being a teacher is a calling to most and being a teacher is their identity 24/7. Can someone who has that calling go from being a teacher to a SWAT-trained shooter in a split second?

The Florida Senate Education Committee a few weeks ago approved SB 7030 amending the 2018 School Safety Act. One change in the bill is expansion of the current Guardian Program to include any school employee who volunteers and meets the requirements stipulated in the law regarding qualifications, training, screenings, etc. The Senate Bill has two more committees of reference before it goes to the Senate Floor and the Florida House has yet to introduce a companion or similar bill. The Florida Legislative Session begins on March 5 and has 60 days to process legislation.

Should legislation be passed to include arming classroom faculty and other staff? I still have mixed feelings. I’d like to know what you think.