The national crime rate in the U.S. has been steadily declining since for two decades and is currently at its lowest rate since 1968.
Likewise, Florida’s crime rate has dropped over the past few decades, but it is still 15 percent higher than the national average. And its imprisonment rate is 23 percent higher than the national average.
Those are just two findings included in a recently released report on Florida’s prison population trends that was published last month to little public notice, but was referenced by St. Petersburg state Senate Senator Jeff Brandes at an appearance at the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club last Friday.
“Our system is broken,” said the Republican lawmaker, who failed to pass several bills addressing criminal justice reform in Florida.
The report from the Boston-based Crime and Justice Institute of Community Resources for Justices also found that prison admissions had declined by 28 percent of the last decade, driven by the declines in crime. However in that same time period, average sentences have increased by 22 percent, balancing out the admissions decline and leading to a mostly stable prison population.
The study (which goes up to the end of 2015) also shows that, generally, it helps to get arrested in the southern and eastern parts of the state. Counties in those parts of Florida tend to send people to prison at a lower rate than northern, central and western counties.
“These patterns hold when looking at admissions per reported crime or admissions per arrest, which means that the disparity is not driven by underlying crime rates,” write the authors, who are Felicity Rose, Colbey Dawley, Yamanda Wright and Len Engel of the Crime and Justice Institute.
Although there has been a decline in prison admissions in the last ten years, that’s certainly not universally felt across the state.
Overall, 47 of 67 counties have experienced a decline in prison admissions since 2007, while 20 counties saw an increase. Within these groups there was significant variation, with some counties cutting their prison admissions by half, while others tripled theirs over the same period.
Enhancements and mandatory minimum sentences have a significant effect on the Florida prison population. Almost 36,000 current Florida prisoners were sentenced with an enhancement or mandatory minimum, up 19 percent from 2007. These enhancements primarily impact length of stay in prison, leading to a stacking effect where offenders come in to prison but do not leave at the same rate.
There were proposals to address the state’s mandatory minimum terms in the Legislature this past session, but no significant policy changes were enacted. The report says that in 2016, staff from Florida’s Senate Committee on Criminal Justice conducted an inventory of mandatory minimum terms in Florida and identified 108 offenses that carry a mandatory minimum sentence.
Demographically, Florida has always been home to some of the nation’s oldest citizens, and that includes those who are incarcerated.
The report shows that the number of prisoners 50 years old and over grew by 65 percent in the last decade, with that growth generated by prisoners who extremely long sentences aging into the “elderly prisoner” demographic.