Florida is known for many things, but reforming the criminal justice system ain’t one of them. State lawmakers often must be dragged kicking and screaming from their 19th-century ideas about crime and punishment.

It took a voter-approved constitutional amendment to finally end Florida’s practice of disenfranchising convicted felons who paid their debt to society, a remnant of the state’s post-Civil War “black codes.”

It took a state Supreme Court decision to force state lawmakers to pass a law requiring unanimous jury decisions before sentencing someone to death, and to stop judges from imposing the death sentence over even when a sentencing jury decides otherwise.

Reform comes so seldom for Florida that in 2019 it was considered a major victory when the Legislature took the modest steps of raising the bar for felony grand theft from $300 to $750 and halting the practice of making it a criminal offense to drive without a license.

That same year lawmakers took a pass on a much bolder initiative: Allowing judges to reduce mandatory jail time for people convicted of nonviolent crimes, like drug offenses.

No surprise then that Florida is the only state in the Southeast — and one of the few in the entire United States — that isn’t participating in the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a 15-year-old public-private partnership that helps states reform sentencing and corrections policies.

The initiative isn’t a get-soft-on-crime effort. It’s intended to help states figure out how to make the most of their prison resources, while lowering crime and saving taxpayer money in the process. If the intent was to coddle criminals, we doubt that get-tough-on-crime states like Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi would have signed up.

Florida, however, seems content to slog along as it has, locking up nearly 8 in every 1,000 Floridians in its state prisons and county jails. The incarceration rate in state prisons alone is nearly triple what it was in 1970.

Florida locks up its people at a higher rate than authoritarian nations like Iran, Cuba and China, though possibly less than North Korea. Not a great look for a place that’s started calling itself the “Free State of Florida.”

And the cost of housing, feeding and guarding some 80,000 inmates every year? Nearly $3 billion.

One of the reasons Florida’s prisons are over-burdened is because the state stopped granting parole to anyone convicted of a crime after 1983. Parole allows a state commission to decide if an inmate — based on a variety of circumstances (including advanced age) — should be released under close supervision before their sentence is complete. It’s different from probation, which is a court-imposed period of supervision after someone serves their sentence.

Florida is now one of 16 states without parole.

Florida’s prison crowding has made the job of guarding inmates one of the most miserable occupations imaginable. The state has already signaled in meetings ahead of its January lawmaking session that guards are in line for pay raises.

That’s a start, but it is, once again, just like Florida to think Band-Aids are going to stop the bleeding from a gaping wound.

It seems obvious that Florida could use the help, so why not ask for it from the Justice Reinvestment Initiative? It’s a resource, a link to experts and expertise who can help the state. Take advantage of it.

Lawmakers also need to have a more open mind about reforming the justice system, including the fixation on mandatory minimum sentences for crimes, particularly nonviolent crimes. And they need to listen less to the Florida Sheriff’s Association, a too-powerful lobby that remains fixated on a just-lock-’em-all-up solution to crime.

Florida needs to become better known as a 21st century state that can keep its people safe without remaining stuck in the 19th century.

– Orlando Sentinel