Florida’s prisons are overcrowded, a result of overly harsh sentencing laws that cost the public millions of dollars and undermine the value of rehabilitation. There are multiple proposals in the current legislative session that would ease early release rules and update probation guidelines, among other reforms. The Legislature should pass some of the commonsense ideas, a needed step toward mending the state’s justice system.
In Florida, inmates serving time for felonies can have their sentences shortened by earning gain time — an incentive awarded for working, completing training programs or earning educational credentials while in prison. But there’s a ceiling: No matter how much gain time inmates earn, they still must serve no less than 85 percent of their sentence. A bill filed in the House would reduce that minimum to 65 percent, while one in the Senate calls for 75 percent. A reduction to 75 percent is reasonable — maintaining respect for crime victims and upholding consequences for serious and violent criminal acts.
Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, is a longtime advocate for prison reform and vice chair of the Senate’s criminal justice committee. His SB 746 would roll back provisions that prohibit repeat offenders from eligibility for any form of early release and that require reoffenders to serve 100 percent of their original sentence.
Florida treats what it calls “prison releasee reoffenders” with unusual severity, directing prosecutors to seek the maximum sentence — often life — for anyone who commits a new crime within three years of leaving prison. Florida has 13,600 inmates serving life in prison without parole — far more than any other state. Cost to taxpayers: more than $300 million a year.
Brandes’ prudent proposals have been rebuffed year after year, even with his own party in power. But this year could result in real progress, buoyed by greater awareness of harsh prison conditions nationwide and attitudes evolving back toward rehabilitation, not just pure punishment.
Other bills under consideration would take the logical next step of helping to shore up Florida’s probation system. Rep. Traci Koster, R-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, D-Tampa, would establish a program to prepare parole-eligible inmates for reintegration into society. It stands to reason that Florida might see a reduction in former inmates committing new crimes if it provided better support and guidance for people when they get out of prison.
It’s tough to get meaningful prison reform through the conservative Florida Legislature, which is too often focused on the cultural lightning rod of the moment, to the detriment of actual matters of public interest. 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 shouldn’t be a hard sell. It would ease overcrowding, give inmates more incentive to work on their lives and — perhaps the easiest sell of all — save money.
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