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  1. Opinion

Deficit or no deficit, Florida needs criminal justice reform | Column

The only effective solution to the budget crunch is comprehensive criminal justice reform, writes an activist.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to ravage the nation, Gov. Ron DeSantis has called for agencies to submit proposals that would cut their respective budgets by 8.5 percent in the current fiscal year and a whopping 10 percent the following year.

In order to meet the governor’s request, the Department of Corrections has offered up a long list of cuts — everything from health services, salaries and benefits, community-based programs, education programs, community work squads (outside work details for the incarcerated) and operations.

Tachana Joseph-Marc
Tachana Joseph-Marc [ Provided ]

Department of Corrections’ proposal, if approved by the Legislature, would slash $211 million from the current year’s budget, with programs at adult prisons, along with drug control and substance abuse programs, carrying the brunt of these reductions.

To achieve budget savings over the next two fiscal years, the department is recommending some notable changes to Florida law, such as:

  • Sending only those with sentences of two years or longer to prison, as opposed to Floridians with sentences of one year or longer as prescribed by state law, which would save $206.6 million;
  • Broadening sentencing policy to require diversion programs for certain individuals with third-degree and non-forcible felony convictions, which would yield $49.7 million in fiscal benefits; and
  • Offering a one-time lump sum of 180 days as gain-time for eligible individuals who are serving time, which would save Florida $10.6 million. (Eligible inmates with a release date of fewer than 180 days by Jan. 1, 2021, would be released early. Those who are serving a life sentence and those convicted of sex offenses would not be eligible. That would reduce the current prison population, thus saving the per-diem cost of incarceration of 180 days.)

Most of the department’s proposals are recommendations that criminal justice advocates have been heralding for years but that have received little buy-in from the Legislature. On the upside, these are recommendations that would — if enacted — effectively reduce Florida’s prison population.

But some of their recommendations also carry negative consequences due to the lack of consideration for overall rehabilitation needs and broader criminal justice reform. For example, proposing to eliminate parts of the work squad programs would save the state $8.2 million; however, incarcerated individuals who often seek out these types of programs for the work experience they offer would lose out, making re-entry into communities and employment searches all the more difficult. Reducing parts of the work squad program without offering any other alternatives is not a smart reform.

Because fiscal year 2020-21 is already underway, the state would need to officially declare a general revenue deficit to enact cuts of this magnitude. Such a proclamation has not yet been made, and the last budget projection conference estimated there will be enough funds to avoid an actual deficit.

However, with a flattened economy and COVID-19 cases spiking again, state lawmakers could approve some of these budget reduction proposals as they prepare for the upcoming fiscal year. To be clear, the Department of Corrections is no stranger to budget shortfalls — the department experienced a $28 million deficit in 2018. And while its budget woes may be worsened by COVID-19, they’ve been present and growing for years. The time for a financial breakthrough is way overdue, and the only effective solution is comprehensive criminal justice reform.

Tachana Joseph-Marc is a policy analyst focused on criminal justice issues at the Florida Policy Institute.

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