Florida Sheriffs Association lobbies lawmakers against shortening inmate sentences
Florida Sheriffs Association President and Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri.

The group says most inmates in prison for drugs are violent, repeat offenders.

Members of the Florida Sheriffs Association visited the Capitol Tuesday to speak out against reducing sentences for what they say are violent drug offenders.

Lawmakers are considering allowing inmates to earn more gain time for good behavior, which would allow them leave prison early. Tampa Democratic Rep. Dianne Hart is sponsoring HB 189 and Sen. Jeff Brandes is moving similar language through the Senate.

The group points to a recent analysis that examined the criminal history of 10,917 inmates who were convicted of a drug-related crime and in the custody of the Department of Corrections as of October 2019. FSA says these inmates accounted for a total of 394,019 prior criminal charges, or an average of 36 charges per inmate, prior to their current incarceration. Criminal defendants are commonly charged with more than one offense at the same time. 

There are currently more than 2,100 drug trafficking offenders in FDC custody. The report focused on charges flagged as forcible felonies and burglary charges. 

“In fact, these are people who have been committed to county jails 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15 times before graduating to the Florida penitentiary,” said Michael Adkinson, Walton County Sheriff and past president of FSA. “So these are not first-time offenders. They have been given opportunities prior to incarceration in state DOC.” 

Gualtieri says most of them are not in prison for simple drug possession and 95% of them are repeat offenders.

But Hart pushed back on FSA’s claims. HB 189 would increase the credit inmates can earn by good behavior from 15% to 35%. Currently, inmates must serve 85% of their sentences in order to be released. Her bill would instead require them to serve 65%. Adkinson said they were not there advocating or opposing any specific legislation.

Hart says there are 94,000 people locked up in state prisons right now, with many of them receiving no rehabilitation. She argues it’s unsafe for inmates and guards.

“What they’re saying makes no real sense to me,” she said. “Figure out how do we get some of these folk out of our system to make it safer for their correctional officers. We have a turnover that’s unbelievable. It’s unsafe. You have thousands of inmates with nobody to guard them.” 

Hart has been unable to get committee chairs in the House to agenda her bill. House Criminal Justice Subcommittee Chair Jamie Grant opposes Hart’s legislation. He says most inmates in the state’s prison are violent offenders. He also calls Hart’s claim that her bill would save $850 million “funny Math.”

Hart said Brandes has been having more success in the Senate.

Sen. Rob Bradley is sponsoring legislation allowing judges to depart from mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders. It wouldn’t apply to drug offenders who have a prior forcible felony, or who possessed or sold fentanyl.

I’m advocating for this because I think this is the right thing to do,” Bradley has said in the past. “I think that judges should be allowed to be judges in the particular circumstances, when you’re dealing with drug crimes.”

Sarah Mueller

Sarah Mueller has extensive experience covering public policy. She earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism in 2010. She began her career covering local government in Texas, Georgia and Colorado. She returned to school in 2016 to earn a master’s degree in Public Affairs Reporting. Since then, she’s worked in public radio covering state politics in Illinois, Florida and Delaware. If you'd like to contact her, send an email to [email protected].


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