Editorial Roundup: Florida

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:

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Oct. 25

The Sun Sentinel on COVID-19 deaths in Florida prisons:

Florida used to confine its road-gang prisoners in old wooden barracks that it intended to replace sooner or later. On July 16, 1967, that became too late for 38 men who died when flames swiftly devoured one of those firetraps in a remote corner of the Panhandle. Only 13 inmates were saved.

No one in authority had wanted that, but indifference can be just as deadly as intent.

That long-ago tragedy comes to mind with the news that COVID-19 has killed 154 Florida prison inmates. That’s second, but not by much, to the 161 deaths in Texas.

Texas, however, has about twice as many prisoners, giving it a lower death rate. Its rate of coronavirus infections also is slightly lower, according to data from the Marshall Project. Florida’s 16,483 infections are virtually the same total as in the federal prison system, which houses nearly twice as many inmates.

Florida prisoners are being infected and dying at dramatically higher rates than Florida’s overall population — more than four times higher as to infections, half again as great as with deaths. That’s despite the Department of Corrections isolating those who are ill and enforcing the masking and social distancing provisions recommended by the Centers for Disease Control. Prison employees are at greater risk also. The 1,313 infections reported among officers and others represent a rate more than three times higher than that of Floridians generally.

It’s another example of lethal indifference. Prisons are such efficient incubators of an airborne epidemic that the first line of defense against the deadly coronavirus should be to release as many inmates as safely possible. The ideal candidates would be those who have served most of their sentences or who committed nonviolent crimes and pose little danger to society.

Some states are trying to reduce their prison populations on account of COVID-19, but not Florida. The Department of Corrections has no authority to release inmates before their sentences expire. However, there are others who could.

Those people are Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Cabinet, who comprise Florida’s pardon board. They have unlimited clemency powers. With minimal effort, they could commute many sentences to time served and relieve the health crisis in the prisons.

Only the governor can initiate clemency — the Cabinet’s role is to approve or disapprove — but DeSantis appears indifferent to the unique threat that the coronavirus has created in prisons.

The infection and death statistics are startling, but not surprising. It would be hard to imagine any setting, other than a nursing home, as vulnerable to the coronavirus. Housing conditions are crowded, social distancing is difficult, medical care is spotty, and the inmate population is getting older due to a long-term trend toward longer sentences.

Moreover, the prisons aren’t air conditioned, a policy owing as much to the Legislature’s thirst for punishment as for any presumed economy. Considering Florida’s climate, captivity in close quarters in buildings designed more for security than for ventilation is cruel and unusual punishment. Without air conditioning, there is no practical way to filter out the virus.

The Commission on Offender Review — formerly, the Parole Commission — can approve conditional medical releases. Those are limited, however, to inmates who are terminally ill or permanently disabled. So far this year, the commission has granted only 26 requests while denying 23.

The federal prison system, which answers to the Justice Department and ultimately to President Trump, is even more callous. According to the Marshall Project, wardens approved only 156 of 10,940 compassionate release requests from March through May. Overseers in Washington then overturned 73 of them.

The COVID-19 situation in Florida prisons would be worse but for a surprising silver lining. There are fewer prisoners — 81, 956 as of Oct. 22 — than at the close of the last fiscal year on June 2019, when there were nearly 14,000 more.

Counties sent fewer inmates during July-September than during the same period last year. And county jails themselves report having 16.7 percent fewer inmates.

A major reason, according to Gordon Weekes, chief assistant public defender in Broward County, is that police are taking fewer nonviolent offenders to jail. They’re writing summonses instead.

And that’s good. Anything that reduces the need for people to post cash bail benefits society. People who can’t afford bail, Weekes points out, are prone to questionable decisions. Sometimes they plead guilty when they’re innocent, just to get out of jail sooner and get back to their jobs or families.

Carey Haughwout, the public defender in Palm Beach County, believes that police are making fewer arrests overall as one means of protecting themselves from the virus. Both offices noted that the prison system has limited capacity in its transfer buses on account of the virus, which accounts for some of the reduction in admissions.

So much more should be done.

In New Jersey, the Legislature in August voted to allow the release of more than 3,000 people who are within a year of completing their sentences. That could be as much as 20 percent of the prison population, according to the Equal Justice Initiative, a prison reform nonprofit. In California, which had a severe outbreak at San Quentin, the governor ordered the release of up to 8,000 inmates.

Florida should take the coronavirus crisis as a second opportunity to test the potential of selective early release on crime and recidivism. Among other things, it might show that it was a grave mistake to abolish parole.

The first opportunity came in 1973 with the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Gideon v. Wainwright, the appeal from Florida that required public defenders for felony defendants who could not afford their own counsel. On that account, more than 1,000 Florida convicts — roughly 10 percent of the population at the time — were released early. The prison system compared their subsequent behavior to that of inmates released during the same time period only after they had served their full and longer terms. The so-called Gideon group returned to prison at about half the rate of the others.

That recidivism study was limited by a relatively short time frame and by the use of only Florida’s own data. Even so, it called into serious question Florida’s policy of relying on punishment, as expressed in sentence length, as either a practical or economical deterrent to crime.

That lesson was forgotten by the 1980s, as Florida’s politicians exploited rising crime rates by competing to see who could crack down the hardest with minimum-mandatory sentences, abolition of parole and other harsh measures. In so doing, rehabilitation was shoved to the curb.

“We operate under a punishment code, not a rehabilitation code,” says Weekes, who will succeed Broward’s Public Defender Howard Finkelstein in January.

That is unaffordable both for its human toll and its burden on taxpayers.

America locks up people at the world’s highest rate. Among every 100,000 of our people, 655 are in jails or prisons. Counting those in local jails as well as prisons, Florida’s rate is even higher: 784 per 100,000. Nationwide, the highest rates are in the South, a fact rooted in post-Reconstruction racism, but disparity permeates the entire nation.

The coronavirus is a new call to the nation’s conscience. It should be taken as an opportunity for reform, rather than another occasion for indifference.

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

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Oct. 22

The Tampa Bay Times on a $135 million state Medicaid contract:

Deloitte Consulting appears primed to land a $135 million contract to overhaul the state’s Medicaid data system. Deloitte is the firm behind Florida’s comically flawed unemployment benefits system, the firm that Gov. Ron DeSantis said shouldn’t get the Medicaid contract, the firm that a competitor accused of lying during the bidding process. The other contending firms have now dropped their protests, and the Agency for Health Care Administration is moving forward with Deloitte. No one seems to like how this looks, at least when they speak publicly. Something smells here, and the Legislature should investigate how Deloitte ended up as the top choice.

The fiasco starts back in 2013, when the Deloitte-designed CONNECT system for paying unemployed workers came online. The $77 million system ran into problems nearly from Day One. The state eventually fined Deloitte $8 million, and the Department of Economic Opportunity — the agency that oversees the unemployment website — wrote that they would not work with Deloitte again. Despite several audits, little was done to improve CONNECT, which failed spectacularly when the coronavirus crisis forced a deluge of workers to file unemployment claims earlier this year. As thousands of Floridians waited weeks to sign up and for money to arrive, the state spent up to another $110 million to shore up the system. The governor called CONNECT a “jalopy” and ordered an investigation into what went wrong.

In August, news broke that Deloitte was the leading contender to get the $135 million contract to centralize and manage the data from the state’s $23 billion Medicaid program. Deloitte beat out several companies, including runner-up Accenture, which two other state agencies gave positive recommendations. Accenture protested that Deloitte had fudged its record, including failing to disclose the $8 million fine. IBM, another contender, complained that one evaluator failed to consider large portions of its bid.

The committee assessing the companies minimized Deloitte’s connection to the failed unemployment system, with members describing the dispute as “sour grapes” and a “renew of a messy breakup,” according to transcripts of a July meeting.

If that wasn’t bad enough, more reporting revealed that the Agency for Health Care Administration had hired Tom McCullion as a $155-an-hour private contractor to manage the Medicaid project, including helping with the bidding process. McCullion happened to be the same guy who oversaw the installation of the CONNECT system several years earlier.

But there’s more! Deloitte lobbyist Jennifer Ungru was the health agency’s chief of staff under Gov. Rick Scott, the man who first failed to address the problems with CONNECT. Ungru also helped DeSantis during the recount of the close 2018 gubernatorial election. Were the close ties just coincidences or did they unfairly tilt the scale in Deloitte’s favor?

Accenture and IBM withdrew their protests last month without publicly explaining why. The move cleared the way for Deloitte to get the $135 million contract. The whole episode reeks of bureaucratic incompetence, shady influence peddling or worse. Among the many pertinent questions: Why did the bid committee gloss over Deloitte’s previous problems? If Deloitte lied in its bid, why reward the firm with a juicy contract? Why the sudden reversal by Accenture and IBM?

This is hardly the first time in recent years that the process for awarding a major state contract turned sour. In 2015, the then-secretary of the Department of Transportation took the highly irregular step of paying a company $3.6 million to drop its bid to overhaul the the state’s SunPass toll system. The winning company then botched the project causing one of the worst state contracting calamities in recent memory. We can only hope Deloitte doesn’t bumble the Medicaid contract in equally spectacular fashion.

Some state officials, including Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, have called for changes to the way the state awards large contracts. That’s a needed step, but it’s not enough. The Legislature should help restore faith in the contracting process by ordering a deep dive into how Deloitte got the $135 million contract. Floridians deserve to know whether the fix was in. Too many questions remain unanswered to just let it go as business-as-usual in Tallahassee.

Online: https://www.tampabay.com

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Oct. 20

The Florida Times-Union on how Floridians would be affected if the Affordable Care Act were to be repealed:

Florida leads the nation in the number of citizens who have signed up for the Affordable Care Act.

So Floridians have good reason to be concerned about attempts to overturn the law, especially with no credible replacement.

Confirmation hearings for Amy Coney Barrett before the Senate committee included one emotional story after another of Americans who were saved from devastating financial hardship thanks to the Affordable Care Act.

One of the key issues involved the ability to obtain health insurance despite having a pre-existing condition. Another issue involved a ban on a lifetime cap on health care expenses. Also, over 8 million Americans who have been infected with the coronavirus potentially have a pre-existing condition.

In short, Americans shouldn’t have to declare bankruptcy in order to receive health care.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration and a group of states including Florida have sued to overturn the Affordable Care Act. Oral arguments before the Supreme Court are scheduled for Nov. 10 with a decision expected in spring.

At issue is health insurance coverage for about 20 million Americans. And 7.7 million Americans have lost their employer-sponsored health insurance during the pandemic recession.

A new poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 79 percent of the public do not want to lose protections that involving having pre-existing health conditions.

The partisan breakdown goes like this: Democrats (91 percent), independents (81 percent) and Republicans (66 percent).

A narrower majority, 58 percent, do not want the court to overturn the entire Affordable Care Act, and the partisan breakdown is stark. Democrats (89 percent) and independents (66 percent) do not want the law overturned while Republicans (76 percent) do.

A majority of Americans, 55 percent, have a favorable view of the Affordable Care Act, the highest share recorded in 10 years of polling by the Kaiser Family Foundation. A total of 39 percent have unfavorable views of the law.

While President Donald Trump and many Republican elected officials have said they would protect people with pre-existing conditions, somebody has to pay for the additional expense. And that probably is the reason why no comprehensive replacement has been passed for the Affordable Care Act.

UNDERCUTTING THE LAW

The Trump administration has taken six steps to “sabotage” the act, reports Brookings.

1. Reduced outreach and opportunities for enrollment. It’s important to attract healthy and younger people to the exchanges in order to keep down premiums.

2. Introduced cheaper, lower quality insurance as options for the ACA. These options also would siphon healthy customers from the exchanges.

3. Cut subsidies to insurance companies offering coverage on the exchanges. Without the subsidies, insurance companies would have incentives to reduce coverage.

4. Promoted waivers that would reduce ACA enrollment. Some states were allowed to impose work requirements with the Medicaid expansion.

5. Discouraged legal aliens from enrolling in Medicaid. The Department of Homeland Security promoted a rule that authorized officials to treat Medicaid enrollment as a negative factor in allowing legal noncitizens to extend their stays.

6. The lawsuit pressed by the Trump administration and 18 Republican attorneys general is now before the Supreme Court.

Despite all of this opposition, 20 million Americans have health insurance coverage from either the exchanges or Medicaid expansion. And the number of states that have expanded Medicaid grew from 31 to 38 during Trump’s term.

When given a chance, voters in Republican-dominated states like Missouri and Oklahoma have voted to expand Medicaid.

The Affordable Care Act has always had its flaws. It still is unaffordable for many middle-income Americans without subsidies.

But those flaws deserve to be repaired, not destroyed. Almost 2 million Floridians are counting on it

Online: https://www.jacksonville.com