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Locking up people isn’t working; Florida must find a better way | Column
“We can only hope lawmakers in Florida, who have taken a ‘see no evil, hear no evil’ attitude toward this problem, will start to acknowledge that the problem is very real,” write guest columnist Delvin Davis
Blackwater River Correctional Facility in Florida.
Blackwater River Correctional Facility in Florida. [ Florida Department of Corrections ]
Published Feb. 23
Updated Feb. 23

Mass incarceration is a plague in Florida that has made the state less safe and less humane. Over the last 30 years, our country has implemented harsh “tough on crime” policies. It started at the federal level, but Florida soon enthusiastically joined in. The results have been disastrous, especially for people of color.

Delvin Davis is a regional policy analyst focused on criminal justice reform at the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Delvin Davis is a regional policy analyst focused on criminal justice reform at the Southern Poverty Law Center. [ Southern Poverty Law Center ]

Incarceration, rather than rehabilitation, became the solution to the drug epidemic. Parole was eliminated in Florida, and minimum mandatory sentences become the way to keep people locked up for decades — and often for the rest of their lives.

A recent Southern Poverty Law Center report examining Florida, Alabama and Louisiana — three states with among the highest incarceration rates in the country — shows the damage wrought by misguided, outdated criminal justice policies. All three states have seen their prison populations skyrocket, leaving people locked up who should not be in cages while the citizens of all three states are no safer than they were before all of these cages were filled.

We can only hope lawmakers in Florida, who have taken a “see no evil, hear no evil” attitude toward this problem, will start to acknowledge that the problem is very real.

More than 95,000 people in Florida are incarcerated — the third largest prison population behind only California and Texas. But unlike the two states ahead of it, Florida still follows a “truth in sentencing” law that mandates incarcerated people serve at least 85 percent of their sentence, no matter the circumstances or what they do to rehabilitate themselves in prison. This removes a motivation for incarcerated people to take educational and vocational classes to help make them better citizens when they do return to their communities.

The 85 percent rule also makes decarceration almost impossible. Even with prison admission rates declining by 22% over the last decade, the size of Florida’s prison population has remained stagnant — declining only 6.5% during that same period.

Florida prisons also have the oldest population in the South, with a quarter of the incarcerated people over the age of 50. Unless something is done, that percentage will almost surely increase to almost 30 percent by 2024. By comparison, in 2000 about 8 percent of incarcerated people were 50 and older.

Studies have established that people “age out” of crime. The vast majority of senior citizens locked up in Florida would be no threat to the public if they are released, no matter what they were convicted of decades before.

As incarcerated people age, they also get more expensive to care for — driving up costs for taxpayers — as they deal with many of the aches, pains, illnesses and diseases that afflict us all as we age. Getting older people out of prison would help reduce that $2.7 billion budget the Florida Department of Corrections had in the last fiscal year and allow more money to be spent on schools, infrastructure and rehabilitation for people addicted to opioids and other drugs.

And this can be done without sacrificing safety. Giving people a chance at parole as they get older and lowering the mandate on time served from 85 to 65 percent of a sentence would be humane and fiscally responsible. It would bring Florida back into the mainstream among other states. These types of reforms are estimated to save the state about $860 million over the next few years. That money is desperately needed as the state seeks to recover from the pandemic.

For too long our lawmakers have made it harder for people to get out of prison. Now is the time to change that. Let’s embrace reform — it’s the way to a better future.

Delvin Davis is a regional policy analyst focused on criminal justice reform at the Southern Poverty Law Center. “The Long Road to Nowhere” can be read here.