Two "gain-time" bills making their way through the Florida Legislature would reform the state's harsh minimum sentencing laws — a move experts say would promote good behavior and public safety while saving the state hundreds of millions of dollars.
Florida's population has doubled since 1980, but the number of incarcerated individuals has increased nearly fivefold in that time, according to the Florida Department of Corrections. A driving force of the swelling prison population is the state's "Truth in Sentencing" law, which requires all felons to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence, even if they are a first-time or nonviolent offender. The expanded prison population has stressed limited state resources, forcing Florida to cut back on penal initiatives such as drug rehabilitative services, medical care, transitional housing, reentry programs, and the general upkeep of facilities.
"This is a mindlessly stupid thing to do," says Greg Newburn, director of Florida policy for Families Against Mandatory Minimums. "It's a one-way ticket to put more people in prison for longer and hope that things turn out well. Meanwhile, there's an enormous amount of research that says keeping low-level, first-time offenders in prison for too long can actually increase recidivism."
Companion legislation in the Florida House and Senate — HB 189 and SB 394 — would retroactively lower the 85 percent sentence requirement to 65 percent, allowing nonviolent or first-time offenders to be released earlier for good behavior. Newburn says the change would create an incentive for inmates to adopt a new pattern of behavior inside prison that can be used upon release as well.
The Florida Department of Corrections is a chronically underfunded and understaffed department relative to the number of people in its care. If the gain-time bill becomes law, Newburn says, the department could reprioritize the money earmarked for corrections to promote better public safety measures, such as drug rehabilitation and medical care, without asking lawmakers to raise taxes. A panel of economists for the Office of Economic and Demographic Research found that a gain-time bill lowering the minimum time served from 85 percent to 65 percent would save the state $860 million in correctional costs.
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Denise Rock of Florida Cares, a grassroots organization that assists families of the incarcerated, says the gain-time bill would also save those families a significant amount of money. Relatives visiting their loved ones in prison often need to take time off work, drive across the state, and stay in a hotel — costs that quickly add up for families who have already lost a source of income.
"The majority of people incarcerated are going to get out eventually," Rock says. "We owe it to ourselves as a society to rehabilitate rather than punish so when they come out, they have a skill set to succeed. We can teach them how to be our neighbors."
The majority of crime victims also support rehabilitative programs and shorter prison sentences, according to a 2016 national study of survivors by the Alliance for Safety and Justice.
Florida Senate Bill 394 was introduced by Democratic state Sen. Randolph Bracy and is cosponsored by state Sen. Lori Berman. The House equivalent is being led by Democratic state Rep. Dianne Hart and House Minority Leader Kionne McGhee. State lawmakers championing the bill will hold a news conference on the steps of the Florida State Capitol today at noon.