Jeff Brandes on how criminal justice reform can address generational poverty - Florida Politics

Jeff Brandes on how criminal justice reform can address generational poverty

At an anti-poverty conference, state Sen. Jeff Brandes said that, if possible, he thinks it could be beneficial for the Legislature to work on policies that encourage millennials to marry before having children, though he acknowledged that’s unlikely to occur.

“The regulatory effects from that would be game-changing,” the St. Petersburg Republican said during the Florida Chamber Foundation’s “Less Poverty, Through More Prosperity Summit” Tuesday in Tampa.

Brandes cited the “Success Sequence” as a formula that can help reduce Florida’s poverty rate, which among those under the age of 18 is a staggering 30 percent.  Success Sequence is an anti-poverty process first endorsed by officials with the Brookings Institute and has since been adopted by folks with the American Enterprise Institute. It calls for people born into poverty to get at least a high school degree, work full-time and marry before having any children, in that order.

That’s easier said than done, Brandes admitted.

“That is one that is frankly, not well suited for the Legislature to address, but it needs to be part of the overall conversation about addressing prosperity and poverty in the state,” he said.

The conversation then veered into criminal justice reform, which has become one of Brandes’ major passions over the past couple of years.

Florida prisons incarcerate approximately 100,000 people, with another 30,000 in urban county jails, Brandes said. But there are not nearly enough people to staff those prisons, hurting the chances those in custody to avoid recidivism.

There are currently 2,100 job vacancies in our state prisons, he said, and not a huge demand to take those positions, which pay a measly $31,000 annually. That contributes to increasing contraband in prisons and inmate violence.

Brandes talked about creating a prison “off-ramp,” such as opportunities to offer civil citations instead of arrests. The state has made major progress on that with juveniles, but Brandes says that opportunity needs to be presented to adults for certain offenses.

“You steal an item in Florida that costs $300. You’re a committed felon in the state,” he said, noting that law hasn’t changed since 1986, as opposed to most of Florida’s neighboring states, where the felony threshold is stealing an item worth $1,500.

“Steal an iPhone; you’re in prison for five years. You could lose your right to vote. Good luck getting a job,” Brandes said, calling it a “scarlet letter” that will be with someone for the rest of their life.

Other policies Brandes specifically addressed include providing inmates with an opportunity to study and acquire occupational licenses while incarcerated, so they have skills in an industry where they’d be eligible to work once released from prison.

Those arrested in, say, Tampa shouldn’t be placed in a prison in the Panhandle, Brandes added, citing how important family interactions are to prisoners in giving them hope about their future.

When Bob Rohrlack, president and CEO of The Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, asked what the business community could do to help, Brandes mentioned mentoring and certificate programs tied to an employer or another career source. He said the Legislature could play a part in offering incentives to businesses and released inmates.

“Can I create a certified inmate program?” he mused, suggesting a look at what other states or doing to encourage businesses to get involved.

Brandes also weighed in on the state’s affordable housing crisis; the current model was broken, he said, and a “radically different approach” needs to be adopted to help the public.

 

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served five years as political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. Mitch also was assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley and is a San Francisco native who has lived in Tampa for 15 years. Mitch can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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