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Public Defenders Say Florida Needs to Fix Criminal Justice System

The Florida Public Defender Association says making holistic changes to the state’s criminal justice system would make it more fair and save money. But some lawmakers seem to be focused just on juvenile justice reform.

A government efficiency report says the state could save millions by making changes like the supervised release of non-violent elderly inmates and increasing access to work release programs.

Stacy Mills heads the public defender office for Levy, Gilchrist, Bradford, Union and Alachua counties. She said Florida has been slow to embrace change.

“Drug abuse and drug addiction, which is really fueling a lot of the crime and is taking up a lot of the prison beds and costing the taxpayers a lot of money," she said.

Florida has the third largest prison population in the U-S. Mills said the state’s ongoing use of prisons to solve addiction and mental health issues won’t work.

“Addiction, or alcohol addiction issues, mental health issues that leads them to commit some sort of crime that they’re before the court on," she said. "And just punishing someone by sending them to prison is not cost-efficient and it’s honestly, in my opinion, wrong."

Meanwhile a handful of lawmakers are proposing juvenile justice reforms.  Miami Republican Sen. Anitere Flores has legislation that would decriminalize some minor offenses for juveniles and require diversion programs throughout the state.

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Sarah Mueller is the first recipient of the WFSU Media Capitol Reporting Fellowship. She’ll be covering the 2017 Florida legislative session and recently earned her master’s degree in Public Affairs Reporting at the University of Illinois Springfield. Sarah was part of the Illinois Statehouse press corps as an intern for NPR Illinois in 2016. When not working, she enjoys playing her yellow lab, watching documentaries and reading memoirs.