Joe Henderson: Tide swinging back toward Florida prison reform

prisoners
Florida Republicans are taking sentencing issues seriously

When Florida Republicans start taking prison and sentencing reform seriously, you almost need to do a double take to make sure you’re hearing correctly. But that seems to be exactly what’s happening in the 2019 Legislative Session.

Praise be for that.

As Danny McAuliffe of Florida Politics reported, several GOP-sponsored bills designed to address sentencing issues are working their way through the Legislature. Broadly, they are attempts to reduce the state’s overcrowded and under-funded prisons by giving the judges more discretion in sentencing.

There is no guarantee any of this will pass, but at least they’re talking about change. It’s a start.

The state can lock up first-time offenders in low-level drug cases for a minimum of 10 years if prosecutors determine the crime rises to trafficking. It doesn’t take much for that to happen.

You have to go back 40 years to trace the evolution of Florida’s war on crime. The first mandatory-minimum sentences for drug offenses were passed in 1979 as the state vowed to get tough on that sort of behavior. New laws took away judicial discretion on sentencing and imposed harsh penalties for even modest amounts of drug possession or sale.

The result was a dramatic increase in the number of prisoners sentenced to long stretches of jail time. That led lawmakers to lighten up about 14 years later, but that didn’t last long. By the end of the century, when Republicans put their stranglehold on state government, being “tough on crime” was again the mantra.

Why change now?

Conditions have forced it, that’s why.

The Florida Department of Corrections is the largest state-run agency, charged with keeping more than 100,000 prisoners behind its walls. That’s the third-largest number in the nation and a reason why the FDOC budget is about $2.4 billion a year.

According to reentry.org, more than 52 percent of those inmates had no prior incarceration before being introduced to the Florida prison system. About 16 percent of those prisoners are there for drug offenses.

Florida locks up inmates at the rate of 513 for every 100,000 adult residents. The national average is 471. The estimated cost per-prisoner in Florida is $18,476 per year. That works out to $1.8 billion.

It’s not hard to follow the road map from there.

The state prison system needs repairs and reform. Allowing judicial discretion in certain cases could help that happen. It could reduce the prison population and redirect money to more positive uses.

State Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican, filed the Florida First Step Act in January aimed at that issue.

Rehabilitation and job training would be part of the deal. Releasing felons back on to the streets without preparing them for life on the outside might not be a good idea.

The notion that Florida can do better than it has appears to be gaining bipartisan support, as it should. Gov. Ron DeSantis has signaled support for the idea of reform, and it makes sense.

While some lawmakers might admit they like the idea of locking up felons and throwing away the key, it’s not smart public policy. No one wants prisoners to come out worse than before they went in, and Florida’s prisons are a notorious incubator for that.

More than 48 percent of the state’s inmates are repeat offenders.

The “get tough on crime” faction ignored statistics like that, choosing to believe the best sentence was the harshest sentence. Maybe that is changing.

No one is suggesting that Florida unlock the doors so violent offenders can run amok. Injecting some common sense into the system wouldn’t hurt, though. It’s time.

Joe Henderson

I have a 45-year career in newspapers, including nearly 42 years at The Tampa Tribune. Florida is wacky, wonderful, unpredictable and a national force. It's a treat to have a front-row seat for it all.



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