With FL prisons under pressure and understaffed, lawmakers reject alternatives to incarceration

By: - May 4, 2021 7:00 am

Credit: Richard Theis/EyeEm/Getty

Florida’s burgeoning prison population — outstripping current staffing — could be reduced by sending more inmates to home-based corrections programs widely considered safe for the public and effective in rehabilitating offenders.

But that won’t happen any time soon, because for the third year in a row, at least, bipartisan efforts to reform Florida’s sentencing laws failed in the 2021 Florida Legislature.

That leaves few avenues for inmates to petition for early release. Florida does nor grant parole, and it rarely grants clemency, compassionate medical release, or any early release except when so ordered by a court.

Even while coronavirus was sickening and killing inmates confined in close quarters, Gov. Ron DeSantis rejected appeals to let prison authorities release even just those at highest risk of contracting and dying of COVID. (State inmates also were the last group to be made eligible for vaccinations, which began last month.) More than 18,000 have been infected, and through Monday, 218 of them died, according to the Florida Department of Corrections.

“Incarcerated people and their families are incredibly disappointed,” said Denise Rock, executive director of Florida Cares, which advocates for inmates and their families.

She said top GOP leaders never returned her members’ calls and never agreed to meet with her. She said that sent a hurtful message.

“You will not even look (consider efforts) at criminal justice (reforms), no matter how much it hurts us,” Rock said.

Many relatives and friends of inmates – as well as crime victims – traveled to the Florida capital to testify at one committee after another in hopes that 2021 would be the year when criminal justice in Florida would become more equitable, more rehabilitative, and less punitive. They did the same in 2020, and in 2019.

Sentencing reforms sponsored this year and previously by Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes of Pinellas County, Democratic Sen. Randolph Bracy of Orange County, Democratic Rep. Dianne Hart of Hillsborough County, Democratic Sen. Jason Pizzo of Miami-Dade and other lawmakers would have allowed prison authorities and courts to shorten the long, sometimes lifelong sentences of adult and juvenile inmates in certain circumstances.

This year, Republican Sen. Keith Perry, representing parts of Alachua, Putnam and Marion counties, sponsored the 2021 version of a gain-time bill allowing inmates to earn time off their sentences by engaging in job training, education, substance abuse treatment and other rehabilitative programs to help them return to society.

“The driver is public safety,” said Perry during a committee debate. “The question is, are they [inmates] better off or worse off when they get released? And the answer is, they’re worse off, almost inevitably they’re worse off.”

Perry said inmates who engage in rehabilitation programs are proven to be less likely to offend again after being released, which he called a good use of taxpayer dollars for public safety.

Like the others, Perry’s bill did not make it to a full and final vote in the Legislature.

Rock was incredulous that the Legislature’s Republican leaders, particularly the governor and Speaker Sprowls, did not back the early-release reforms, which legislative staff estimated would save the state $840 million over five years by reducing incarceration expenses.

Backing the reform measures are inmates’ families and inmate advocates including Florida Cares, Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), and Right On Crime. Even victims of crime testified that sentences should be more about rehabilitating offenders, to make the public safer, and less about just locking them away.

Law-enforcement representatives and prosecutors annually oppose any reforms, arguing that stiff prison sentences result in less crime.

The reforms would have allowed the state’s oldest and sickest inmates to be released early to their families.

They would have reduced severe sentences for drug offenses established in the 1970s when the United States launched its “War on Drugs” and then escalated it in the 1980s in a war specifically on crack cocaine. Approximately 80 percent of crack users were Black, resulting in nonviolent Black drug offenders being sent to prison across the country in numbers now considered wildly out of line compared with other offenses, such as possessing powder cocaine, according to Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a criminal-justice reform organization.

The reforms proposed in Florida this year would have allowed courts to take a “Second Look” at long sentences imposed on offenders imprisoned when they were young and who have served many years in prison already.

They would have re-established parole in Florida. Parole, a form of discretionary early release, has not been on the books since 1983.

And they would have banned solitary confinement for young prisoners.

Most of the criminal-justice reform bills did not get a hearing. The ones that passed early in Senate subcommittees died in the Senate Appropriations Committee without being heard.

Corrections Secretary Mark Inch testified to senators on Feb. 22 that Florida’s prisons cannot hire and keep enough correctional officers to safely supervise the state’s inmate population of roughly 80,000 and growing. He described the staffing shortage as “critical” and said the prison system is on the verge of collapse.

In budget negotiations for 2021-22, the House and Senate agreed on “a comprehensive plan for the consolidation of a state-operated correctional institution and a plan for the redirection of any identified cost savings to provide correctional officer salary increases to address vacancy, attrition and turnover concerns,” according a House budget summary.

Lawmakers also agreed on “phase two of a four-year transition for correctional officers to move from 12-hour shifts to 8.5-hour shifts in state-operated institutions, and to provide enhanced delivery of basic recruit training for newly hired correctional officer trainees to also aid in recruitment and retention.”

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Laura Cassels
Laura Cassels

Laura Cassels is a reporter, former statehouse bureau chief, and former city editor. She is a classical pianist, a Florida State University graduate and proud alum of the Florida Flambeau, an independent college newspaper.