Prison reform a tough sell in the Legislature

Florida lawmaker new ideas for reforming criminal sentencing. Photo courtesy:

Florida’s prisons are overcrowded and costing the public hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

There are proposals in the Legislature that would relax early release rules and update probation guidelines, among other reforms. Passing some of these proposals could be a step toward mending the state’s justice system.

The proposals include incentives for working, completing training programs or earning educational credentials while in Florida’s prisons. The inmates serving time for felonies can also have their sentences shortened. However, no matter how much “gain time” inmates earn, they still must serve no less than 85 percent of their sentence. A House bill would reduce that minimum to 65 percent, while one in the Senate calls for 75 percent. A reduction to 75 percent is designed to maintain respect for crime victims and uphold consequences for serious and violent criminal acts.

Senator Jeff Brandes, a Republican from St. Petersburg, is a longtime advocate for prison reform and vice chair of the Senate’s Criminal Justice Committee. His bill, SB 746, would reduce provisions that prohibit repeat offenders from eligibility for any type of early release and that requires repeat offenders to serve 100 percent of their original sentence.

Repeat offenders in Florida are treated with severity, with prosecutors seeking the maximum sentence. In most cases, life for anyone who commits a new crime within three years of leaving prison. Florida has 13,600 inmates serving life in prison without a chance for parole, far more than any other state, costing taxpayers more than $300 million a year.

Although Brandes’ proposals have been rejected, even with his own party in power, this year could bring new results.

It is already raising awareness of harsh prison conditions and leading to discussions about rehabilitation. Other bills under consideration would take the obvious steps of helping to reinforce Florida’s probation system.

Rep. Traci Koster, a Republican from Tampa, filed a bill that would allow time off a probation period for good behavior and completion of life-skills programs. Another proposal by Rep. Dianne Hart, a Democrat from Tampa would provide a program to prepare parole-eligible inmates for reintegration into society. It is believed that the program would cause a reduction in former inmates committing new crimes if it provided better support and guidance for people when they get out of prison.

Getting meaningful prison reform through the conservative Florida Legislature can be a challenge. Out of all the proposals to improve the state’s prison system, reducing the minimum time inmates must serve from 85 percent to 75 percent of their original sentence, may be the most likely to succeed. It would ease overcrowding and give inmates more incentive to work on their lives.