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The Future Of Prison Reform In Florida

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Darrin Klimek/Getty Images
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Attempts to reform the way criminals are sentenced and how much time they spend behind bars have made little headway in the Florida legislature in recent years.

But following the passage of federal criminal justice reform in December, it seems state legislators from both parties may be ready to take a new look at reforming the state’s prison system.

Republican State Senator Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg recently filed Senate Bill 642, the "Florida First Step Act," which would allow judges to depart from mandatory minimums for drug trafficking charges. It also calls for allowing inmates to earn more time off their sentence if they earn a diploma or participate in an entrepreneurship program.

It’s one of a number of criminal justice reform-related bills Brandes has filed for the upcoming legislative session.

“Brandes seems to be pretty confident about it,” Health News Florida’s Julio Ochoa said Friday on The Florida Roundup. “He’s watching prison costs rise incrementally and he’s trying to find a way to slow that down so that we can reform prisoners instead of warehouse them.”

Florida is home to the third largest prison system in the country. It incarcerates approximately 96,000 inmates in correctional facilities and supervises nearly 166,000 offenders as part of community supervision programs. Thirty-six percent of inmates are imprisoned for nonviolent drug and property offenses.

Florida requires that all prisoners complete 85 percent of their sentences.

All of that comes with enormous costs: the Florida Department of Corrections has an annual budget of $2.4 billion. That number has climbed 60 percent in the past decade, amidst a shortage of correctional officers.

In December, prison officials told lawmakers they would need an addition $330 million to finance current programs.

Much of the spending increase is for healthcare. The population of inmates is wracked by “illnesses like Hepatitis C, HIV, and the ravages of long-term drug use,” John Kennedy, capitol reporter for GateHouse Media, said on The Florida Roundup.

“The general cost of healthcare, more like hospitalization, is something the state is covering,” he said.

Health Services accounts for $460 million of the corrections budget, or 18.9 percent.

Part of Brandes’ proposal includes what’s called “conditional medical release,” or allowing some inmates that are sick and frail and have little chance of reoffending to be released.

Twenty-four percent of inmates are over 50. But during FY 2017-18, elderly inmates accounted for 57 percent of all episodes of outpatient events, 47.5 percent of all hospital admissions, and 52 percent of all inpatient hospital days, according to the Florida Department of Corrections.

“They could go straight into nursing homes or be put back with families,” Ochoa said. “On the outside these inmates would become eligible for Medicare and Medicaid. Right now they’re not ... and that means the taxpayer has to pay for their entire care.”

The Florida First Step Act follows the model of federal legislation signed by President Trump last year, and would do away with some mandatory minimum sentences, such as for certain types of drug possession.

Florida currently has over 100 mandatory minimum sentences and strict sentencing guidelines imposed on judges.

That’s contributed to a swelling prison population in Florida even while crime rates overall have declined in the state.

“That’s a bizarre paradox,” Kennedy said. “Crime in Florida is at a level now that is parallel to 1963 -- that’s stunning. Yet you’re creating a [prison] population that just keeps growing and the costs just keep climbing.”

Brandes has said the state can do away with “most of the mandatory minimums.” He’s also called for juvenile justice reform and for changing the state’s felony theft threshold -- or the value of stolen property for it to count as a felony -- from $300 to $1,500. That threshold hasn’t been changed since the 80s.

So far, support for prison reform has been widespread in Florida, including from fiscal conservatives, evangelical groups and criminal justice reform groups.

But one of biggest obstacles, Kennedy said, will be Florida’s sheriffs.

“The Florida Sheriff’s Association is not a fan of this idea of trying to reduce sentencing for people that have committed crime,” he said. “The sheriffs have been an opponent of these proposals in the past and are likely, once again, to present an obstacle going forward.”

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Jessica Weiss