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2018 Florida Bar Criminal Justice Summit

In October of 2018, the Florida Bar Association held a criminal justice summit in Tampa where policymakers, Judges, prosecutors, criminal defense attorneys, and many more of diverse professional backgrounds came together to discuss various issues within the Florida criminal justice system. Ellen Podgor covered the summit in an article for the February 2019 edition of the Florida Bar Journal. Issues involving mental health, pretrial release, sentencing reform, direct file, juvenile sentencing, specialty courts, offender reentry, and conviction integrity were all discussed during the two-day summit. This summit was important for criminal justice reform because it initiated discussion that allowed the issues within the system to be recognized. Recognizing the issues is the first step to criminal justice reform.

The first day of the summit began with a discussion of the significant increase in Florida’s prison population over the last few decades. Len Engel with the Crime and Justice Institute in Boston addressed the increase in prison population with data. He told the audience that Florida has an imprisonment rate 23 percent higher than average. In 1978, the prison population in Florida was 21,436 and in 2016 the number increased dramatically to 99,974. Summit panelists discussed the reasons behind this increase. Engel explained that Florida might be sending fewer people to prison, but prison sentences are longer than they have been in the past. Engel presented research explaining that longer prison sentences do not reduce the tendency of a convicted criminal to reoffend over shorter sentences. In the conclusion of his presentation, he encouraged alternatives to incarceration and research into the correlation between the length of incarceration and repeat offenders.

Pretrial release and sentencing reform were also discussed on the first day of the summit. When discussing pretrial release, some panelists advocated for the importance of presumption of innocence for those accused during pretrial and others emphasized the importance of public safety. Rachel Logvin with the Pretrial Justice Institute noted, like Engel, that the prison population has “exploded” since 2000. She explained that among those prisoners, two-thirds have been in pretrial detention. Pretrial detention is when an accused individual is detained before their trial has taken place. She explained that pretrial detention impacted racial minorities and those who could not afford to pay for release disparately. Logvin raised issues that were addressed by other panelists. Tom Palermo, a U.S. assistant attorney in Tampa told the audience and other panelists that there is a need for better technology in the state system, with which many agreed. Another thing panelists seemed to agree on was the need for pretrial transparency and a need for some sort of balance between a presumption of innocence and public safety. The sentencing reform discussion was tense and many had disagreements with each other, but folks seemed to agree that nonviolent offender sentences need to be reformed and judges should have more discretion when it comes to mandatory sentences. On the second day of the summit, six different workshops were offered to attendees for a closer examination of six different topics including juvenile sentencing, juvenile direct file, mental health, offender reentry, specialty courts, and conviction integrity. Panelists in each workshop offered different opinions on how we should approach reform, while the audience participated too. Direct file of juveniles is when the State gives the prosecutor the power to file charges against a juvenile as an adult. The workshop for this topic included a group for direct file and one against. The question that prevailed during discussion of direct file was, should trial court judges or state attorneys make the choice to charge juveniles as adults? Those in favor of direct file argued that prosecutors typically have more information than judges therefore they should have discretion. Others supported judicial discretion as the means for determining whether or not juveniles should be in adult court. Panelists in the direct file workshop came to an agreement that mandatory direct files should be reviewed.

The juvenile sentencing workshop was the next in line on day two. Panelists agreed the civil citation programs were beneficial to society. Civil citation programs are a way for an officer to give a citation that avoids charging a juvenile in the juvenile justice system. Panelists discussed the expansion of the civil citation program and the effectiveness in Hillsborough County. They all agreed that there must be a consistent implementation of diversion programs like civil citation in Florida. In the specialty courts workshop, panelists discussed expansion and reform that could improve these courts. They talked about how drug courts help cater to those with addictions by working with social workers and health care professionals, and how the Veteran’s Treatment court helped cater to veterans and provided a pretrial diversion program. It was concluded that specialty courts benefit society, but funding was an issue mentioned by each panelist. The suggestion to educate lawmakers on the positive aspects of specialty courts and their potential to reduce costs seemed to resonate with all panelists.

The next workshop was on mental health. The discussion was about how the criminal justice system has issues with mental health. The number of Florida prisoners with mental health issues was said to be increasing, while lack of funding for mental health programs is an issue. Each panelist mentioned the lack of funding and the increase of prisoners with mental health problems. Panelists advocated for the treatment of those with mental health issues in the prison system and suggested ways to fund programs that support treatment.

Offender reentry and conviction integrity were the last workshops at the 2018 summit. Panelists talked about the challenges offenders face when reentering their communities and homes. They highlighted the need to help offenders find housing and employment opportunities along with obtaining access to education and vocational training in order to reduce the chances of being incarcerated again. Reentry programs were discussed and it was agreed that there should be programs that provide a clear pathway to successfully reentering society. Conviction integrity was discussed next. Conviction Integrity Units investigate wrongful conviction claims. Panelists talked about the procedural barriers that conviction integrity presented. They also discussed the need for proactive programs that prevents wrongful convictions in the first place. Panelists agreed that better communication between all involved would be beneficial to the program.

As the summit came to an end, attendees were encouraged to consider the thoughts and ideas presented throughout the two-day event. The criminal justice summit initiated discussion among policymakers, judges, defense attorneys, prosecutors, and so many more that identified key issues within the criminal justice system. Because of this conversation, steps can be taken towards reform.

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