In the Florida Legislature, there may be a new attitude toward criminal justice this year

By: - February 26, 2019 7:00 am

Matthew Charles

In a crowded legislative committee meeting room at Florida’s Capitol, six prison wardens assembled to tell state lawmakers exactly how years of inadequate funding and overly harsh sentencing policies have hurt their jails.

Corrections officers, they said, only make an average of $33,000 a year. It’s hard to hold onto an employee who makes such a low salary for such a difficult job. At Polk Correctional Institution, there’s only one academic teacher for 1,200 inmates, assistant warden Ann Casey told lawmakers. The teaching job has been vacant for seven months, and it’s little wonder – it requires a master’s degree, but the pay is only $32,000 a year – $15.67 per hour. A teacher in nearby Orange County, she said, can make $48,000 a year.

Not only that, she said the prison hasn’t had enough money to fix a roof and three damaged air conditioners. That means 10,000 square feet of space is unusable.

State Sen. Bill Galvano, a Republican from Bradenton, called the wardens’ testimony before the Senate Criminal Justice Committee last week “eye opening.”

Giving paltry attention to the state’s prisons has long-running consequences, experts say – especially when inmates are thrust back out into society without skills or training.

As it stands today, a Florida prisoner gets released with a change of clothes, a bus ticket, and $50.

Reforming one-size-fits-all justice

Speaking with reporters in January about proposed criminal justice reform for the legislative session which starts next week, state Sen. Jeff Brandes, a Republican from St. Petersburg, was blunt:

“As bad as the criminal justice system and the prison system was last year, it’s worse this year as far as funding, budget and personnel,” he said.

Progressives have been pushing criminal justice reform for many years. But today, they’re joined by conservatives who say that it’s time for government to get more for its money when it comes to crime and punishment.

“There’s nothing conservative about supporting a prison bureaucracy that fails and doesn’t correct behavior and doesn’t rehabilitate folks and continue to pour money into that system,” says Patrick Nolan with the American Conservative Union Foundation.

Florida’s progressive and conservative/libertarian leaning groups have formed a coalition that includes the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and the Southern Poverty Law Center, along with conservative think tanks like the James Madison Institute, Right on Crime and Americans for Prosperity (founded by Republican megadonors Koch Industries).

One of their chief targets in the upcoming legislative session that starts March 5: The state’s “mandatory-minimum” sentencing guidelines, a hardline 1990s law which sets standard punishments for specific crimes – giving judges no choice to consider individual circumstances (like drug addiction or abuse).

Nashville resident Matthew Charles knows all about it. He came to Tallahassee last week to tell lawmakers and Gov. Ron DeSantis his story. In 1996, he was sentenced to 35 years for selling crack cocaine and buying guns under an assumed name. He was released early due to a federal reform law and a national campaign in his name which drew attention from celebrities, including Kim Kardashian. Charles is now working with the advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums to convince lawmakers that Florida should ease its punitive sentencing laws.

Charles told the Phoenix that Florida’s current system “offers zero incentive for a person to change or be rehabilitated. And unless a person has a life sentence or a death sentence, they are going to be released back into society, and therefore they should be able to come out better and/or rehabilitated, instead of unchanged and bitter.”

Sen. Brandes is among the lawmakers sponsoring the Florida First Step Act, which would give judges discretion to depart from mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenses. About  2,000 prisoners – including Charles – were released when a federal version of the “First Step” law went into effect last year.

“I’ve long believed we shouldn’t treat drug addicts like kingpins, and that we should allow judges to have discretion and actually look at the fact of the case as they’re sentencing people so that we’re making sure that if they’re addicts that we make sure get addiction treatment because, frankly, that’s what they need,” Brandes says.

The ACLU of Florida say Brandes’ bill should be amended to add funding for inmate job training and education, and making sure that certain elderly and terminally ill inmates can get compassionate releases.

Funding prison health care and rehabilitation

The Department of Corrections, the groups say, needs more funding to be effective. To fill a budget hole last year, lawmakers and former Gov. Rick Scott cut $28 million from a program that helped inmates overcome substance abuse and offered transitional housing to adjust to life outside bars. Gov. Ron DeSantis is recommending an additional $164 million in his $2.7 billion proposed corrections budget this year, with new dollars for inmate health services like pharmaceuticals and Hepatitis C treatment.

“It isn’t like there isn’t new money going into corrections,” Brandes said. “The challenge is, it’s all going towards health care, and not towards programs and services that we know help with the recidivism.”

A look at reform proposals

For the past three years, Brandes has offered a number of measures to reform the Sunshine State’s criminal justice policies like other southern, conservative-led legislatures have in places like Georgia, Oklahoma and Louisiana. Yet somehow, Florida has resisted reform.

This year, besides the mandatory minimum reform, lawmakers will consider several measures:

– A bill to put Florida more in line with other states in terms of what’s considered felony theft. Most states say someone has to steal thousands of dollars to get charged with a felony. In Florida, it’s only $300. (Only New Jersey has a lower level, at $200). The new proposal, sponsored by Brandes, would raise the level of felony theft to $1,500. Big businesses are fighting the measure, led by the Florida Retail Federation, which represents retail giants like Publix, Best Buy, Target and others.

– A bill to stop a vicious circle that poor people can get caught in: they get arrested, they get charged court fees, their driver’s license gets taken away when they can’t afford the court fees, and then they don’t have a car to go to work to earn money to pay their court fees. The proposal would allow people to opt for a payment plan or serve community service instead of losing their driver’s license. It’s sponsored by state Sen. Darryl Rouson, a Democrat from Tampa Bay. This is the fourth year the measure has been introduced in the Legislature.

– The “Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act” would require prisons to provide free feminine hygiene products such as tampons, sanitary napkins, and toothpaste. The measure would also prohibit male employees from conducting pat-down or body cavity searches on women prisoners unless the woman presents an immediate risk to herself or others and a female correctional facility employee isn’t  available. The measure is sponsored by state Sen. Jason Pizzo, a Miami-Dade Democrat, state Rep. Amy Mercado, a Central Florida Democrat and Broward County Democrat state Rep. Shevrin Jones.

Another criminal-justice bill would allow felons better opportunities to get occupational licenses; a bill would prohibit an employer from asking about an applicant’s criminal history; and other legislation would automatically make any future criminal justice reforms retroactive for current inmates.

It’s not hard to make the argument that the public is ahead of Republican politicians when it comes to giving inmates a second chance. Last November, more than 64 percent of voters approved a state Constitutional Amendment to automatically restore voting rights to felons who have served their time (except those convicted of sex crimes or murder.)

“Restoring the eligibility to vote was one step towards” change, says Micah Kubic, executive director of the ACLU of Florida. “But much more must be done to fix Florida’s broken criminal justice system.”

The Florida Legislature,” Kubic says, “ should follow the cue of Florida voters and work on meaningful criminal justice reform initiatives this coming session. It has been long overdue.”


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Mitch Perry
Mitch Perry

Mitch Perry has spent the past 18 years covering news and politics in the Sunshine State, most recently with He worked for five years as the political editor of Creative Loafing in Tampa, and before that he was the assistant news director at WMNF radio, where he served as creator/anchor/producer of the hour-long WMNF Evening News. A San Francisco native, Mitch began his career at KPFA Radio in Berkeley in the 1990's.