Since 1973, 23 death row inmates in the state of Florida have been exonerated. The state has seen another 12 exonerations for serious crimes since the introduction of DNA testing. More recently, the state's courts have overturned several rape and murder convictions based on the testimony of notorious police dog handler John Preston, who made wild, unsupportable claims about his dogs' abilities to sniff out criminals in dozens of cases over the course of 20 years. These exonerations moved the Florida Supreme Court to create an Innocence Commission in 2009. The 23-member commission, made up of judges, politicians, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and other criminal justice professionals, was charged with examining the state's wrongful convictions and recommending policies to reduce the chances of wrongful convictions in the future.
That is, until last month, when Gov. Rick Scott vetoed the $200,000 the legislature had budgeted for the commission to continue.
It's a puzzling decision from the governor, a favorite among Tea Party activists and limited government advocates. In a state with a $70 billion budget, the commission's funding is minuscule. Even if Scott is unconcerned about his state's history of imprisoning innocent people, his veto could cost Florida taxpayers in the long run. A 2011 study of 85 wrongful convictions in Illinois found that convicting and imprisoning the wrong person cost taxpayers $214 million. The actual perpetrators of those crimes went on to commit dozens of additional felonies, including 14 murders. Assuming the costs are similar in Florida, if the commission prevents just one wrongful conviction, it would fund itself for 12.5 years.
This isn't the first time Scott's law-and-order streak has trumped his alleged limited government sympathies. In April, Scott vetoed another criminal justice reform measure that would have saved taxpayers money. HB 177 would have allowed Florida's nonviolent drug offenders to be released after serving 50 percent of their sentences, instead of the current 85 percent mandated by state law. It would have saved the state millions in incarceration costs. The bipartisan bill passed both houses of the state's legislature by a combined vote of 152-4.
In his veto message, Scott wrote, "Justice to victims of crime is not served when a criminal is permitted to be released early from a sentence imposed by the courts." That's an odd bit of reasoning, considering that the bill would only have applied to prisoners convicted of consensual crimes--that is, crimes that have no actual victims.
Meanwhile, Scott's veto last month makes it more likely that there will be more innocent victims wrongly convicted and imprisoned by the state's criminal justice system--and more likely that the actual culprits of those crimes will remain free to victimize more of Scott's constituents.
CORRECTION: Since this article was published, The Huffington Post has learned that the article upon which it relied, a Miami Herald column by Fred Grimm, was in error. The Florida Innocence Commission was set to expire this year, and therefore did not request any funding from the legislature. Accordingly, the legislature did not budget any funding, which means Gov. Rick Scott did not veto a budget for the commission. We regret the error.
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