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)

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Life and Style
A still from a scene cut from The Interview showing North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's death.
tech
Voices
'That's the legal bit done. Now on to the ceremony!'
voicesThe fight for marriage equality isn't over yet, says Siobhan Fenton
Life and Style
Approaching sale shopping in a smart way means that you’ll get the most out of your money
life + styleSales shopping tips and tricks from the experts
Arts and Entertainment
Bianca Miller and Katie Bulmer-Cooke are scrutinised by Lord Sugar's aide Nick Hewer on The Apprentice final
tvBut Bianca Miller has taken on board his comments over pricing
News
in picturesWounded and mangy husky puppy rescued from dump
News
newsAstonishing moment a kangaroo takes down a drone
Life and Style
Duchess of Cambridge standswith officials outside of the former wartime spy centre in Bletchley Park
tech
News
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

The Jenrick Group: Maintenance Planner

£28000 - £32000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Maintenance...

The Jenrick Group: World Wide PLC Service Engineer

£30000 - £38000 per annum + pesion + holidays: The Jenrick Group: World Wide S...

The Jenrick Group: Project Manager

£35000 per annum + Pension+Bupa: The Jenrick Group: We are recruiting for an e...

The Jenrick Group: Night Shift Operations Manager

£43500 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Night Shift Operatio...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'