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The number of criminal justice reform bills filed by Jeff Brandes now stands at 18.

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Bills providing for early release for ill and elderly inmates clear second Senate committee

The bills open the door for more inmates to conditionally leave prison

Two proposals allowing the early release of ill or elderly inmates unanimously passed a Senate justice panel Wednesday.

The first bill (SB 556) would rewrite the prior conditional medical release system, which allows for the early release of some inmates with debilitating illnesses. And the other bill (SB 574) would let a panel consider inmates at least 65 years old who have been in prison at least 10 years for early release.

St. Petersburg Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes, chairman of the Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Subcommittee, filed both conditional release bills. Those proposals, he says, would streamline the current review processes and hand accountability to the Department of Corrections (DOC).

“We’re trying to create a really 360 review of this individual, making sure we have impact statements, making sure that everyone’s voice is heard,” Brandes said.

Brandes’ proposed conditional medical release plan is based on the federal model, keeping the review process DOC’s responsibility. And inmates must have a debilitating illness, terminal or not, or be permanently incapacitated to be considered.

The victim is allowed to give input into the decision, and if the prisoner’s medical condition improves, they could be taken back into custody. The inmate could also go back to prison if they violate the conditions of their release.

A three-person panel would automatically consider inmates eligible for early release under Brandes’ proposed age-based release bill. But in all cases, the DOC secretary has the final say.

An amendment by the Senator dropped the minimum age for release from 70 to 65 years old, a change Brandes’ committee colleague Sen. Gayle Harrell said she was “taking a leap of faith” to accept. Some crimes, she said, only require a sound mind to commit.

“As I said previously, 65 is the new 55, and people are living longer and are in a different physical condition,” the Stuart Republican said. “We also know a lot of fraudsters out there, the Bernie Madoffs of the day, committed many frauds and crimes well after 65.”

Robert Weissert, representing the Florida TaxWatch, told the committee his organization had recommended the plan in past years as a potential cost-saving measure.

Ahead of the passage of the conditional medical release bill, Sen. Darryl Rouson shared the story of a constituent who was released from prison three months before he died at home. To the St. Petersburg Democrat, early medical release is compassionate release.

“I’m pleasantly optimistic about all these reforms that we’re doing in this area this year — just hopeful that this bill makes it all the way to the floor, out of the chamber and to the Governor’s desk,” he said.

The two bills make up a larger package of criminal justice reform bills the Legislature is considering this Session. Brandes has been a driving force in that movement, and the Senate looks receptive to fixing DOC’s prison overpopulation issue.

“Across the board, and the DOC Secretary said this, that they are planning on a downward spiral, that they’re in an unsustainable trajectory, so we need to do things that put them on a better path,” Brandes said.

And reforming the criminal justice system is a priority of Gov. Ron DeSantis. His proposed budget includes a retention plan and pay raises for correctional officers.

DOC reported in 2018 that the elderly inmate population had been steadily increasing over the last five years for an overall increase of 2,585 inmates or 12.5%.

“I think it’s important to note that everything the Florida Senate is doing and everything that we’re proposing is led by data and research,” Brandes said. “We’re looking around the country for the best practices that produce the best results for everyone involved here and really focusing on public safety.”

Both bills were postponed last week, but now head to the overarching Senate Appropriations Committee, their final stop before heading to the chamber floor.

Written By

Renzo Downey covers the Florida Legislature for Florida Politics. After graduating from Northwestern University in 2019, Renzo began his reporting career in the Lone Star State, covering the Texas House of Representatives for the Austin American-Statesman. Shoot Renzo an email at renzo@floridapolitics.com and follow him on Twitter @RenzoDowney.

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