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Jeff Ashton: 'Improper' policy led to tough prison record

Memo to prosecutors advises asking for 1 year, 1 day sentences

ORLANDO, Fla. – State Attorney Lawson Lamar likes to point out his prosecutors send more felons to prison than even those in much larger Miami-Dade County.

That much is true.

But Jeff Ashton, Lamar's opponent in next month's election, said that statistic may be boosted by what Ashton calls an "improper" policy.

Ashton points to a 2008 email from Lamar's felony bureau chief urging prosecutors to send people to prison for more than one year -- even when "justice supports" a sentence of less than one year in the county jail.

"There is a shortage of jail space, and a good amount of available state prison space," prosecutor Joe Cocchiarella wrote in the Sept. 29, 2008 email. "Local jail space has local costs that our county (who still supports the state attorney's office in a number of ways, including office space) must absorb and pay."

So, Cocchiarella told felony prosecutors, "When justice supports 51 weeks incarceration, please consider recommending eight more days and make it a year and a day in state prison."

Ashton said it was "improper" to make sentencing decisions on political concerns, such as pleasing the office's landlord.

The memo could be one reason more people were sentenced to prison out of Lamar's office than in other, larger counties, added Ashton.

For his part, Lamar said he was not calling for prison sentences for people who did not otherwise deserve it. And, he noted, his office policies have helped reduce the county jail population, saving local taxpayers millions of dollars.

Noting sentencing guideline scores determine when judges can choose to send felons to prison rather than jail, Lamar said, "If they score they ought to go to prison. I'm not saying let's send them for a year and a day. That's not the notion. It's get them out of the local county jail, where we're paying for them with local ad valorem taxes, and then off to state prison because the state legislature has said these people deserve prison."

To see if the memo resulted in more borderline prison sentences versus fewer jail terms of nearly one year, Local 6 created a database and analyzed 49,000 felony cases that resulted in sentences from September 2005 to September 2011 – three years before and after the email.

In the three years before the memo, 8 percent of prison sentences in Orange County felony cases were for between one year and one year, one week in prison. That proportion increased to 12 percent in the year after the email was distributed, but fell back and averaged 10 percent of all felony sentences for the entire three year period after the email.

Meanwhile, the proportion of felony jail sentences that were between 51 weeks and one year dipped slightly, from 1.2 percent in the three years before to 0.9 percent in the first year after the email.

But then the proportion of felony jail sentences of 51 weeks to one year inexplicably increased dramatically over the next two years. The three year post-memo average was 3.9 percent, up from 1.2 percent over the three years prior.

Bottom line: there is no way to say for certain the memo led to more prison sentences than would have resulted if the memo had not been distributed and, in fact, may have had no effect at all.

In fact, Ashton said he ignored the memo during those years he was still a prosecutor in Lamar's office.