Joe Henderson: Florida prison funding crisis could become public safety issue

Florida Prison 1
Corrections officers are overworked, under-paid, and fed up.

Any reasonable person will agree that Florida is tough on crime. The state has the third-largest prison population in the country, with nearly 100,000 inmates. That’s thanks, in part, to mandatory minimum sentencing laws that led to an incarceration rate 21% higher than the national average.

That lock-them-up-no-matter-what approach to law enforcement comes at a high cost, particularly for those on the front lines. Lawmakers seem to consider that collateral damage and have shown little interest in addressing it.

Combine that with the Legislature’s unwillingness to shoulder these policies’ full cost, and you get what we have today – an unholy mess that could become a public safety issue.

There is a backlog of about 1.2 million criminal cases from 2020 because of the pandemic. Many of those cases will finally make it to court later this year, and thousands of inmates would show up at the prison gates and snap a system that already can barely handle what it currently faces.

“It’s metastasized to a point now where the challenge is so great. They’re in emergency staffing now. Understand that because of COVID, there’s a tsunami of cases waiting to be processed,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Jeff Brandes told Florida Politics.

“The Department can’t handle it now, and they’re down like 12,000 inmates (because of COVID-19).”

Brandes has long advocated for prison funding and sentencing reform.

This problem has been building for years while lawmakers generally ignored the Cassandras, such as Brandes, who warned of a potential catastrophe in the making. Well, that time has arrived.

Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Mark Inch told a Senate budget panel last month that the prisons are “a system in crisis.”

“It’s not Inch that’s making this happen. It’s the Legislature,” Brandes said. “They’re not paying enough to attract and keep talent.”

Lawmakers say the law requires them to pass a balanced state budget, but the pandemic led to a significant revenue shortfall.

Now what?

Because of staffing shortages, officers complain of work shifts that can top 16 hours. Only nine of Florida’s 40 state-run prisons have appropriate staffing. Of the others, 30 prisons currently experience emergency staffing, while 11 others are at critical levels.

“The prisons continue to experience incredibly high turnover of correctional officer staff. This turnover is due in part because of the low pay. Still, the extreme workload actually drives the officers out of the department,” Florida Police Benevolent Association Executive Director Matt Puckett told Florida Politics.

Would you put up with that if you worked there? If the answer is no, many officers would agree with you. About 42% of state corrections officers quit after their first year on the job. By the end of the second year, that number is nearly 60%.

“The results have been detrimental with several reports of fatal vehicle crashes and suicides involving correctional officers coming off of an extended shift, or a run of extended shifts,” Puckett said.

“The officers are exhausted, highly stressed, and frustrated.”

Meanwhile, the Legislature may cut the department’s budget by $140 million. The proposed budget recently cleared the Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Subcommittee by one vote.

Let’s face it, though. The cuts haven’t generated a widespread outcry because most people don’t like to think about prisons — either the inmates or the people who guard them.

“I think it’s possible that in a down economic year, the easiest, most non-controversial place to cut is the prison system,” Brandes said.

Over the last decade, the number of elderly inmates grew by 65%, and it’s not stopping. Projections say that number could grow by nearly 28,000 by 2023, representing about 29% of the prison population.

Prisoners currently must serve at least 85% of their sentence, but Brandes suggests reducing that to 65% for non-violent offenders. Changing sentencing requirements for the elderly also could reduce the strain on the system.

Prisoners older than 65, for instance, have significantly higher medical issues than younger inmates.

“Inmates don’t get Medicare or Medicaid,” Brandes said. “Their cost is borne entirely by the state.”

Moving out those least likely to return to prison could save, Brandes estimated, “hundreds of millions” of dollars per year.

Also, one plan under consideration could close or combine several prisons. A 2019 report laid out ways to accomplish this, but Puckett said it should include ways to shift officers to other short-staffed facilities.

Brandes and Puckett basically say the same thing in different ways.

The Legislature needs to realize the looming crisis and take steps to head it off. Corrections officers are overworked and underpaid.

Years of neglect have put us here.

And the clock is ticking.

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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