Florida’s inmate population is disproportionately old and unhealthy, making prisons especially vulnerable to the COVID-19 virus. Prison reform advocates want the state to release a small number of inmates who are in poor health or incapacitated and near the end of their sentence. They’d be subject to strict oversight.
It’s called conditional medical release. Other states are doing it. Illinois has released nearly 4,000 inmates. Pennsylvania released about 1,800.
Several bills were filed in the 2020 session in Tallahassee to allow for releases in Florida, but they went nowhere. That frustrates the proposals sponsor-- Senator Jeff Brandes, who has toured dozens of prisons and seen how little rehabilitation takes place.
“We’re not doing anything while people are incarcerated with us for five years to get them literate, to get them educated, or to get them active or deal with some of these other issues, and so that’s been the major push for all of us over the past few years on the prison front,” Brandes said.
The St. Petersburg Republican chairs the Senate budget subcommittee and is the legislature’s leading champion of reforming prisons. He recently took part in an online discussion with leaders of Families Against Mandatory Minimums – FAMM – a reform group. FAMM President Kevin Ring asked Brandes why so few of his colleagues don’t agree with him.
“Your colleagues in Florida are not there yet. What’s the disconnect? What don’t they see that you see and we see?” asked FANM President Kevin Ring.
“You need a vision and you need a champion,” Brandes replied. “In Florida we have not yet established the vision.”
Ring says Florida missed an opportunity by not reforming its sentencing laws before the deadly virus took hold in March.
“We’re in a pandemic now where a lot of thing that should have been done it almost feels too late,” Ring said. “If we had taken pro-active steps, the problem wouldn’t be so great.”
The problem: Florida taxpayers spend billions and billions of dollars to warehouse geriatric inmates with multiple health problems who are too old and feeble to commit new crimes and likely will die behind bars.
Brandes could not even convince the Legislature to simplify a highly bureaucratic system for the very few medical releases that do occur. An inmate must win approval from both the Department of Corrections and the Florida Commission on Offender Review, what used to be known as the Parole Commission.
The senator personally tried to win release for an inmate with Stage 4 cancer, an elderly veteran with a family to go back to. The request failed on a 2 to 1 vote by parole commissioners.
“And when I followed up two weeks later and they said, ‘He’s gotten worse. What can we do? Can we re-evaluate this?’ By the time I followed up, he had already passed away," Brandes said.
Brandes, FAMM and other advocates say they will redouble their efforts next legislative session. But they will face continued resistance from the House and Governor Ron DeSantis. One factor that might help their cause is a major budget crisis that could force major cuts in programs across the board, including prisons.