Thursday, November 15, 2018
Opinion

Column: Early release options in Florida prisons

With state prison and criminal justice reforms in the news, state inmates, their families and supporters, lawyers and other advocates should be aware of early release options and strategies. Florida has nearly 101,000 inmates in 56 major state prisons and numerous annexes and work camps.

A clemency commutation of sentence and parole are alternate paths to the same goal, which is to release the inmate early. Both involve compassion, redemption and forgiveness, and are the ultimate grant of a second chance. To get either, you must convince elected or appointed officials that the inmate will never commit another serious crime. However, clemency and parole involve different decisionmakers, rules and time frames.

Executive clemency is the governor's power under the Florida Constitution to grant mercy. If the governor says yes, two members of the Florida Cabinet must also agree. The Cabinet has three members who are elected statewide: attorney general, chief financial officer and the commissioner of agriculture. The governor and Cabinet serve as the Board of Executive Clemency. If the governor says no, the application is denied, which can happen at any time for any reason. Since 1980, there have been 148 prison clemency commutations approved by seven governors.

Parole is an act of grace by the state. The power to grant parole is held by the Florida Commission on Offender Review. This granting power is derived from general law established by the Florida Legislature that can change the eligibility criteria at any time. The commission has three appointed members who serve six-year terms.

Parole was abolished in 1983 for most crimes, and in 1995 for capital murder and sexual battery. There are fewer than 4,600 inmates eligible for parole. The Legislature should consider re-establishing parole for nonviolent crimes committed by juveniles.

Community work release is separate from clemency or parole and presents the best opportunity to leave prison early. It allows inmates to work at paid employment in the community while continuing as inmates of the facility where they are required to be confined. It is commonly referred to as just "work release," and it is the key transition and re-entry component of the broader community release program. The five policy goals of work release include:

1. Gradual reintegration back into the community.

2. Gainful employment.

3. Accumulation of savings from paid employment.

4. Preservation of family and community ties.

5. Participation in self-help programs.

With only 4,000 slots at 35 work release centers, the Legislature should expand these successful programs.

There is another way to leave prison early: conditional medical release. The Florida Commission on Offender Review has the exclusive power to release a very sick inmate. However, an inmate is only eligible under the current conditional medical release program when the inmate is determined by the Department of Corrections' doctors to be either "permanently incapacitated" or "terminally ill."

No inmate has a right to conditional medical release or to a medical evaluation to determine eligibility for such release. Inmates sentenced to death are not eligible. Since 1996, there have been only 204 inmates approved for conditional medical release.

More conditional medical releases, called "compassionate" release in other states, would be humane and save taxpayers money. The Reason Foundation estimates it costs $68,270 annually to incarcerate inmates over 50 years old — four times the average cost for all Florida inmates.

The Florida Senate passed a major state prison reform bill that expands conditional medical release to nonviolent "elderly and infirm inmates" over 70 years of age. This would make infirm and other physically impaired inmates who pose no public safety threat eligible to live out their final years with relatives or in community nursing homes.

The Senate also approved letting the inmates' families arrange and pay for independent medical evaluations and exams, which will save taxpayers money and likely lead to more medical releases.

The Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott should embrace these modest, fiscally sound reforms.

Clemency, parole, work release and conditional medical release are the four legal methods of leaving prison early. There is a fifth way — escape. Trying to escape is a bad idea, so inmates should not try it. Escape is illegal, it rarely works, it is punishable up to an additional 15 years in prison and it endangers the lives of other inmates, correctional officers, visitors and civilians. When captured, the inmate will get a serious disciplinary report, be subject to administrative confinement, and lose numerous privileges such as desirable work assignments.

With the regular legislative session concluded, it is a great time to discuss these issues with state senators and representatives in their districts.

Reggie Garcia is an AV Preeminent-rated lawyer and author of "How to Leave Prison Early." He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

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