Legislative report identifies prison population reduction strategies

The Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability (OPPAGA) released its 2018 analysis last week of Florida sentencing laws and the effects on prison population. The report, commissioned internally by the Florida Legislature in its 2018 General Appropriations Act, makes several recommendations for reducing the state’s criminal justice costs by reducing prison population.

The recommendations identify policy options for reducing or diverting low-risk offenders from entering Florida’s prisons including by expanding access to “problem solving courts” like drug and mental health court, reducing third-degree felonies to misdemeanors, modifying mandatory minimum sentencing requirements and revising the state’s point-based Criminal Punishment code to be less stringent.

In 2018, Florida’s 143 prison facilities housed nearly 100,000 inmates, making it the third-largest prison population in the U.S. and placing Florida at No. 10 for the highest incarceration rate in the United States at 500 inmates per 100,000 residents.

Reducing that number could save the state millions, the report found. The Florida Department of Corrections’ total budget last fiscal year was $2.4 billion. Reducing the state’s prison population by just 1,500 inmates would equate to closing an entire prison and save the state $27.5 million annually.

Each prison inmate in the state costs $21,743 a year to house, feed and care for, according to the report. By contrast, the cost to monitor convicted offenders on probation is just $2,015.

The report found Florida is underutilizing its diversion programs. Participants in drug court, for example, made up just 10 percent of all defendants facing drug charges in 2016. The study referenced prior research that found the state’s use of fines and fees as a precondition for such diversion programs, which include things like entering drug counseling programs in lieu of prison time, and a lack of individualized treatment for offenders limits access to diversion-based programs, which could be addressed through legislation.

The study acknowledges that increasing access to diversion programs would offset some of the savings realized by reducing prison populations, but points out there are additional societal benefits and potentially long-term fiscal savings by doing so.

The report found recidivism rates for low-level felons was higher among those sent to prison than it was for those placed on probation. A comparison between the two groups found that 29 percent of offenders re-offended while just 23 percent of those who received community supervision did.

Florida could also benefit from reforming policies that cause sentencing across the state to lack uniformity. Florida’s existing code assigns points to offenders. The higher the number, the more severe the punishment. But the report found counties did not uniformly sentence convicted felons for similar crimes with the same point rating.

It found counties with the highest prison admission rates were predominantly located in the north and northwestern areas of the state. Those areas were also less populated. Areas with higher populations, like Miami-Dade, which had the lowest prison admission rate, send people to prison far less often.

The report offered an example. If the rest of the state had a similar incarceration rate to Bay County, the state inmate population would be roughly double what it is, but if the entire state had low rates like Miami-Dade, the prison population would be about 60 percent what it is.

Janelle Irwin Taylor

Janelle Irwin Taylor has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in Tampa Bay since 2003. Most recently, Janelle reported for the Tampa Bay Business Journal. She formerly served as senior reporter for WMNF News. Janelle has a lust for politics and policy. When she’s not bringing you the day’s news, you might find Janelle enjoying nature with her husband, children and two dogs. You can reach Janelle at [email protected].

One comment


    January 15, 2019 at 5:22 am

    The photograph depicted with this article gives weight to why the term ‘fake news’ is used so often. The photo implies that this is how Florida prisons look when in fact this photo is from another era – another place as nothing in Florida looks this horrid.

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