Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:

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Nov. 4

The Daytona Beach News-Journal on the flaws of the 2018 constitutional amendment ‘Marsy’s law’:

When Florida voters approved a 2018 constitutional amendment known as “Marsy’s law,” they were told it was meant to protect the rights of people victimized by horrific crimes such as child sexual abuse or murder.

They probably never imagined the law being flipped on its head, used to protect police officers suspected of brutally subduing, beating, even killing civilians. Unfortunately — as documented in a joint investigation by USA Today and ProPublica — that’s what’s happening in Florida. At least seven police agencies have withheld the names of officers who have killed civilians: Sheriff’s departments in Broward, Sarasota, Manatee, Charlotte and Hernando counties, and police departments in Tampa and Tallahassee. Numerous others have redacted the names of officers involved in nonfatal use-of-force incidents, including some that resulted in serious injury.

It seems so counter-intuitive. But the flaw may be hard-coded into the wording of the amendment itself.

A little background is in order. Twelve states have adopted versions of Marsy’s law, named after a 21-year-old California woman who was stalked and killed by her boyfriend. Her family advocated hard for measures that protected the rights of crime victims. But many worried that the resulting language tilted the balance too far, stripping constitutional rights from those accused of serious crimes. There was also concern among open-government advocates,that the law would be used to deprive members of the public of critical information about crime in their communities.

The version adopted in Florida, South Dakota and North Dakota is particularly troublesome. Where the original law sealed away information that prevented “the disclosure of confidential information (about the victim) to the defendant,” the Florida version dropped the words “confidential” and “to the defendant.” That led some agencies to block any disclosure of victim information at all. And it kicked in right away: Within six months of the law taking effect, Florida’s First Amendment Foundation tracked dozens of cases where agencies refused to provide information that previously would have been public.

How does that translate to protection for police officers? In the use-of-force incidents reviewed by USA Today, law enforcement officers involved in the incidents were routinely named as victims of crimes like “resisting arrest with violence” — even though, in half the cases, officers claiming anonymity under Marsy’s law sustained no injuries and in others, the injuries seem fairly minor compared to the damage suffered by the people being subdued.

Why should these officers’ names be revealed? Multiple reasons. First, transparency serves as a check on the significant power that police wield over civilians. The public deserves to know that, if police abuse their authority, they’ll be held to account. Transparency also lets the public see which officers have amassed a history of violent confrontations.

But just as important, openness protects good cops. That’s something Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood recognized long ago, when he led the Daytona Beach Police Department to become the first agency in Florida to mandate body-worn cameras for officers at all times. Likewise, when officers do use force justifiably – and it’s a brutal fact of life that sometimes, they must – they deserve public vindication and support.

Legislators had a chance to close this loophole before, in 2019, with legislation that would have exempted the names of active-duty law enforcement officers involved in use-of-force cases. They passed. But with growing evidence that Marsy’s law is obscuring information that should be open, lawmakers should act to restore Floridians’ faith that police use of force will be fully, fairly investigated, and ensure justice in those rare cases when authority is abused.

Online: https://www.news-journalonline.com

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Oct. 30

South Florida Sun Sentinel on Florida’s new death penalty law:

Oct. 29 was a day of infamy at the Florida Supreme Court. Over one anguished dissent, five arch-conservative justices discarded a nearly 50-year-old precedent in order to approve more executions, not caring whether the prisoners actually deserve to die.

The justices renounced their duty to review death sentences for proportionality — that is, whether execution would be too severe in comparison to other cases.

The court adopted that policy in 1973 as its basis for upholding Florida’s new death penalty law, which had been enacted after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1972 decision that capital punishment throughout the United States was arbitrary and capricious.

What Florida’s death court did belies the old promise to ensure consistency between who lives and who dies for similar crimes under similar circumstances. It sets Florida far apart from most of the other states that still execute people. And it demonstrates that capital punishment in Florida is beyond justification or repair and must be abolished.

The justices who took part in the travesty should be voted out of office, starting with Carlos Muñiz, the only one on Tuesday’s ballot.

The court made its ruling in its 50th consecutive rejection of an appeal from a death row inmate, in this case, Jonathan Huey Lawrence, 45, a murderer from Santa Rosa County.

The Legislature requires the court to review every death sentence. In 1973, the court took that to mean that it should consider more than just the usual fine points of law, that it should also consider proportionality across racial, sex, geographical lines, and the circumstances of each crime.

“No longer will one man die and another live on the basis of race, or a woman live and a man die on the basis of sex,” Justice James C. Adkins Jr., promised in the old majority opinion.

Largely because of that assurance, the U.S. Supreme Court let Florida resume executions. There have been 99 so far. However, dozens of other prisoners have been re-sentenced to life in consideration of disparities in sentencing.

In March 2014, however, the Florida court’s most conservative justices, Charles Canady and Ricky Polston, argued that proportionality review violates a 1998 amendment to the Florida Constitution that the Legislature intended to keep the death penalty from being overturned.

It requires Florida courts to interpret the U.S. Constitution’s provision against cruel or unusual punishment according to how the U.S. Supreme Court does. That court ruled in an appeal from another state that the U.S. Constitution doesn’t require proportionality review. So, said Canady and Polston, Florida must not practice it.

Canady and Polston were outvoted 5-2 on that occasion, but their dissent was an open invitation to the attorney general’s office to revisit the issue once enough justices were replaced by conservative appointees of Govs. Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis. Jorge Labarga is the only remaining moderate and the last voice of decency.

It was again his turn to dissent, as he had in three earlier decisions of the new majority that mean more death sentences will be carried out. He called the Lawrence decision “the most consequential step yet in dismantling the reasonable safeguards” in Florida’s death penalty law.

“I cannot overstate how quickly and consequentially the majority’s decisions have impacted death penalty law in Florida,” he wrote.

Labarga argued that even though the U.S. Supreme Court does not require proportionality review, it has never held it unconstitutional. Moreover, 15 of the other 25 death penalty states conduct proportionality review, including Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia.

In line with “evolving standards of decency,” Labarga said, Florida has “in many instances” given its citizens greater rights and protections than the minimum required by the U.S. Supreme Court. That, he mourned, “has been significantly, if not completely repudiated by this court’s various opinions” in recent death penalty cases.

The court’s 1973 promise of fairness was in one sense difficult to keep. For the court rarely, if ever, sees cases of murderers sentenced to life in prison because those cases end at the five district courts of appeal. But there are many lifers in Florida prisons whose crimes were more brutal than those committed by some on death row.

Among them: Clem Beauchamp, sentenced to three consecutive life sentences in Palm Beach County four years ago for the murders of his girlfriend and her two children, whose decomposing bodies were found in luggage dumped in a canal.

The Lawrence decision is all the more tragic because the last resort of executive clemency has become a dead letter in Florida. Not since 1985 has a Florida governor commuted a death sentence to life in prison.

Apart from Muñiz, Canady and Polston, the other death-dealing justices were Alan Lawson, a Scott appointee; and John Couriel, named recently by DeSantis. The governor’s newest justice, Jamie Grosshans, did not participate.

We had already recommended a vote against Muñiz’s retention as a way for the public to protest how DeSantis, and Scott before him, have made right-wing credentials, including membership in the Federalist Society, a litmus test for appointment to the bench.

The Lawrence decision is an insult to Florida’s sovereignty. The state’s highest court is taking what the U.S. Supreme Court never said as a pretext to invalidate a fail-safe provision against random cruelty in the application of society’s only irreversible punishment.

The armor of capital punishment is rotting away, revealing a ghoulish presence that has nothing to do with preventing crime. It is bloodlust, nothing more.

Online: https://www.sun-sentinel.com

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Nov. 2

Florida Times-Union on the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic's ‘third peak’:

The coronavirus attacks the weakest of us in a diabolical way.

Many people have no symptoms or mild symptoms, which means the coronavirus is difficult to detect and stop.

As the pandemic spreads toward a third peak across America, it has revealed other weaknesses in the nation.

America was already struggling deaths of despair with an opioid epidemic as well as high levels of suicide. Americans are dealing with isolation, loneliness and depression.

Nearly 72,000 Americans died of overdoses in 2019 and the numbers are on track to be greater this year. More than 40 states have reported large numbers of opioid deaths this year, reports the American Medical Association.

A total of 13 percent of Americans have used substances to deal with stress brought on by COVID-19, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As for suicide, the data is not all in, but the warning signs are clear. In late June, 4 in 10 adults reported struggling with drug use or mental illness. For young adults ages 18 to 24, 1 in 4 had seriously considered suicide in the last 30 days, according to a survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And it’s no surprise that people using opioids are more vulnerable if the coronavirus strikes.

Jacksonville citizens have been hard hit by the opioid epidemic. A pilot program, Project Save Lives, has been remarkably effective in using peer counselors and quick treatment to help interrupt deaths. But more funding has been needed, which is why Jacksonville has joined lawsuits against opioid manufacturers.

Good news was released by Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody. Opioid manufacturer Mallinckrodt agreed to pay $1.6 billion into a national trust account as part of a bankruptcy. A similar bankruptcy agreement is underway with the Purdue opioid manufacturer.

“By holding Mallinckrodt accountable for its role in exacerbating the opioid crisis, we move closer to our goal of ending this epidemic and bringing relief to the Florida communities affected,” Moody said in a news release.

HELP NEEDED FOR SUFFERING FAMILIES

The economic pain from the pandemic is a powerful reason for a second round of payments from the federal government.

In fact, in America’s four largest cities (New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston) at least half of adults say they have either lost their jobs or had their wages cut during the pandemic. That fact comes from a new poll conducted for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Minorities — Blacks and Latinos — have been hit hard.

In Houston, 81 percent of Black households and 77 percent of Latino households reported severe financial hardship, reported NPR. Overall in Houston, 4 in 10 people had used up all or most of their savings.

In short, about 6 in 10 Houston adults were broke.

The poll revealed even worse financial problems than the public health experts predicted.

If there is good to come from the pandemic, it is that Americans needs to spend more attention on our fellow citizens who need our help.

Giving a hand up — the golden rule — should be celebrated when our neighbors are suffering.

America’s nonprofit sector is more important than ever but only government can provide the funds to scale up help.

Online: https://www.jacksonville.com