Florida turns screw on offenders

IT'S LUNCHTIME, and the distinguished senators are filing from their chamber in Florida's State Capitol in Tallahassee, mostly looking pleased with themselves. One is intercepted in the corridor outside by a lobbyist, who exclaims: 'You were wonderful. Thank you for your help on castration.'

The object of her joy is a vote registered minutes before, overwhelmingly approving a bill targeting rapists in the state. Commit rape twice and Floridians would face so-called chemical castration: injection with a substance to suppress the sex- drive caused by the male hormone, testosterone. Do it a third time and the penalty might be the electric chair.

This is standard stuff here nowadays. With one week left in their annual session, legislators are riding - blindly, some say - an accelerating raft of bills and proposals aimed at cracking down on criminals with new, often draconian punishments. Juveniles are a particular concern. Under one draft law, offenders as young as 14 could face execution. There have even been calls, none formally taken up, for the return of public hangings.

All that is missing is any progress towards gun control. One proposal that would at least have banned possession in the state of the most dangerous assault weapons foundered after one member of the House claimed he had seen a vision of John Wayne on the Capitol steps, telling him that the only effective way to fight crime was to equip law-abiding citizens with firearms.

Ghosts aside, what is happening in Tallahassee is typical. Nationwide, state politicians are embracing stiffer sentences as the only available means to contain America's crime epidemic. The frenzy has been encouraged by President Clinton himself, who recently endorsed the so-called 'three-strikes- and-you're-out' provision, which will allow courts to put in prison for life - literally life - anyone found guilty for a third time of a serious violent crime. Some states are even looking at 'two strikes and you're out'.

'The situation on crime is getting out of hand and the public is looking to its elected representatives to deal with the problem,' said Senator Gary Siegel, who voted in favour of chemical castration. 'The bottom line is that something's got to be done, and people want punishment to fit the crime.'

Closely associated with the steep rise in public preoccupation with crime - it has now overtaken the economy as the main issue of concern among voters, according to recent polls - has been the publicity triggered by attacks on foreigners. Last week, President Clinton apologised personally by telephone to the parents of two young Japanese students, who were gunned down and killed in a shopping centre carpark in Los Angeles.

Florida knows well what can happen when the victims are foreigners. The effects of last year's string of attacks - in which nine foreign visitors, including two Britons, were murdered - are still being felt in the all-important tourist industry. In the last 11 months of 1993 - the most recent figures available - the number of overseas visitors declined by 1.2 per cent. Although there was a 5 per cent rise in the numbers of British arrivals, that figure was sharply down from a 24 per cent growth rate in 1992.

The shooting in September of British tourist Gary Colley at a highway rest-stop 36 miles east of here had a particular impact, as the four now awaiting trial in Tallahassee were all in their teens. That and the other tourist murders became the spur for the current rush for reform. Some see an irony in that, given the toll of Floridians being murdered: 1,238 last year.

'It's taken the death of those nine to raise the awareness of the grave situation,' said Tom Tramel, president of the Florida Sheriff's Association. 'But at least the families of those that died here, for what small consolation it may be, can know that those deaths were not completely in vain. Those are the ones that are now bringing about change in the state.'

The catalogue of proposed changes is dizzying. Some, including the castration bill, may yet fall foul of final Senate House negotiations this week. But provisions for an unprecedented prison-building binge to enable the state to put more people behind bars and keep them there longer are certain to survive.

Until recently, offenders in the state were, on average, completing only 32 per cent of their term before being released. The figure has now risen to 42 per cent. With the new prison spaces to be created, it should reach 75 per cent.

A version of the three- strikes-and-you're-out law is also expected, while the Senate has passed a separate bill that will oblige existing prisons to deny inmates access to cable television or even CD or cassette players.

Then there is a string of measures for juvenile offenders. Taken together, they amount to a change of philosophy that will allow Florida's judges to begin to treat juveniles - even as young as 14 - as if they were adults, particularly with regard to punishments. The possibility of their being sent to the chair at that age is an extension of the new approach.

With 212 juveniles charged with murder in the state last year, no politician here questions the logic. ''It doesn't make a difference what age the person is that commits the crime,' said Don Siegel, a Democratic senator from Miami Beach. Execution of minors, even of 12- year-olds, might be necessary in certain cases, he said. 'It would not be the best thing to do in most cases, but it ought to be an option.' Other steps include forcing parents of juvenile offenders to pay with a period of community service.

Some voices outside the Capitol query the emphasis on punishment, rather than prevention. Alternatives, they say, could include increased youth and parent counselling, and improved education.

Among the sceptics is Greg Cummings, lawyer for the youngest defendant in the Colley case, Cedric Greene, who was 13 when the murder occurred. 'It is knee-jerk reaction after the tourist killings, and everybody is jumping on the bandwagon,' Mr Cummings complained. 'They have used Cedric as the poster child for juvenile justice reform.'

But Tim Moore, commissioner of the Florida Law Enforcement Department, is unreserved in his enthusiasm for what is happening. 'I salute the men and women down there for doing the right thing,' he said. 'We don't want to be a barbaric society. But, by the same token, we don't want anyone, adults or kids, to continue to murder in the way they are. Protecting the public must be the priority.'

(Photograph omitted)

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