How Communities are Reforming Criminal Justice in Florida

According to a report from the World Prison Brief, there are nearly 11 million incarcerated people in the world. How many of those 11 million people do you think are incarcerated here in the U.S.? 

If you made a guess based on that number, you might look at the U.S. population, which represents about 5% of the world population, and estimate accordingly. That would give you a U.S. prison population of about 500,000. Unfortunately, you’d be well off the mark.

America’s prison population reaches beyond the 2 million mark, accounting for nearly 20% of the world’s total prison population. To reconcile these startling figures with American notions of freedom, justice, and prosperity, we need to rethink mass incarceration and the criminal justice system. Here, we’ll explore how grassroots community organizations in Florida are addressing three key elements of criminal justice reform: prevention, re-entry, and reform.

Ending Mass Incarceration Begins with Prevention

One significant aspect of criminal justice reform is prevention, particularly tackling the school-to-prison pipeline. Grassroots organizations like Florida’s People Acting for Community Together (PACT), and Jacksonville’s  Interfaith Coalition for Action, Reconciliation, and Empowerment (ICARE) are making notable strides in this area.

These groups worked with law enforcement officials and other elected officials to implement restorative justice programs in schools and communities. The programs have helped reduce out-of-school suspensions, which are an indicator of a student’s likelihood to drop out. Meanwhile, ICARE has opened four Neighborhood Accountability Boards, which use restorative justice to divert non-violent youth offenders from jail.

Work by community-based and CCHD-supported groups like ICARE and PACT are keeping kids out of jail with these preventative programs. 97% of the youth who participated in ICARE’s programs never reoffended—an impressive demonstration of how to support victims, engage and teach offenders, and protect communities without punitive and retributive criminal justice tactics.

To Reduce Recidivism, Support Reentry Programs

Formerly incarcerated people are not often set up to succeed as they reenter their communities. They may not have a support network, a job, or employable skills if they have been incarcerated since they were young adults. This combination often leads to high recidivism rates, which damages not only the individuals themselves but their families and communities.

Communities like Jacksonville have seen first-hand how communities and individuals suffer when re-entry isn’t prioritized. To support formerly incarcerated people and their communities, organizations like the Jacksonville Re-Entry Center (JREC) are actively assisting reintegration. Their work meets the needs of those who have been recently released, as well as those who will soon be released. Reentry programs like this may include:

  1. Transitional Housing: Providing stable housing options is a key element of success when re-entering a community. A safe, stable place to sleep provides formerly incarcerated individuals with the opportunity to focus on other important things like finding work and establishing a support network.
  2. Employment Support: Assisting individuals in finding work through partnerships with staffing agencies and offering career skill development can ensure that formerly incarcerated individuals have support, direction, and independence.
  3. Victim-Offender Dialogue (VOD): Facilitating conversations between offenders and their victims can foster understanding, empathy, and even reconciliation when the victim desires it. VOD can help victims receive answers they may not have had, and it can help offenders understand the full gravity of their actions. When offenders gain a deeper understanding of the impact their actions had through VOD, it often leads to lower recidivism rates.

Reform Puts the Justice in the Criminal Justice System

Finally, victims, offenders, and their communities all deserve a reformed criminal justice system—one that is focused on justice and healing, not retribution and punishment. One example of successful reform is the civil citation program in Escambia County. This program has been championed by a CCHD-supported group, Justice United Seeking Transformation (JUST) Pensacola. 

An arrest can have a permanent impact on a person’s employability. When formerly incarcerated people finally leave jail or prison, they find their employment prospects decimated. According to a report from the Prison Policy Initiative, nearly 30% of formerly incarcerated people are unemployed. 

JUST’s civil citation program addresses the destructive nature of arrests by directing law enforcement to issue citations instead of making arrests for misdemeanors like trespassing, shoplifting, or vandalism. The program, which was initially aimed at reducing youth arrests for first-time offenders, has recently been expanded to cover first-time adult offenders as well. The program aims to:

  1. Divert People from the Criminal Justice System: By offering alternative methods of addressing offenses, such as crime-specific educational programs and community service hours, offenders can avoid being permanently marked by a criminal record and its subsequent impact on their lives.
  2. Focus on Rehabilitation: Restorative justice programs encourage offenders to confront the consequences of their actions, leading to personal growth and understanding as well as a path toward healing and reconciliation for those who have been harmed
  3. Reduce Financial Burden: The civil citation program is more cost-effective for communities, as youth arrests can cost as much as $13,000 to process. Meanwhile, it costs less than $400 to process a civil citation. This protects the future of youth, keeps communities safe, and reduces taxpayer burdens. Over the course of a year, this could add up to millions that could be reinvested in programs that strengthen communities, rather than arrests and court dates that only tear communities apart.

Criminal justice reform isn’t about letting offenders off easy or eliminating the laws and protections that keep communities safe.  Rather, it’s about empowering individuals and communities to grow, heal, and become better people and places to live. 

Reform Starts at the Community Level — Get Involved Today!

Criminal justice reform is a multifaceted journey encompassing prevention, re-entry, and reform. Embracing restorative justice principles can foster healing, empathy, and accountability, offering a transformative alternative to punitive measures.

CCHD is proud to support groups like JUST Pensacola who are working on these crucial initiatives. By supporting grassroots efforts to address the needs of victims, the community, and those responsible for causing harm, CCHD is able to empower communities to build a future where rehabilitation, reconciliation, and justice prevail.

If you want to get involved with the groups making change, find a CCHD group in your area. Additionally, you can make an impact by supporting the CCHD National Collection in November,  If you missed the collection, or your (arch)diocese doesn’t participate, you can support the collection online with #iGiveCatholicTogether. Your support will enable us to continue our work to eliminate poverty, including funding amazing groups like ICARE, PACT, JUST, and more all across the country. 

Finally, help us elevate our work for criminal justice reform across the U.S. by sharing this article and connecting with us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram!

About CCHD

The Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) was established by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to carry out Jesus’ mission, " bring glad tidings to the poor...liberty to captives...sight to the blind, and let the oppressed go free" (Luke 4:18).

CCHD follows two main objectives. First, to help low-income people and those experiencing poverty participate in decisions that affect their lives, their families, and communities. Secondly, we seek to educate and enhance the public’s understanding of poverty, its root causes, and the systems that allow it to persist.

To learn more, check out our educational resources or encounter stories of hope.