Should elderly and gravely ill inmates be released from FL state prisons?

Florida state prisons incarcerate thousands of elderly, incapacitated, and gravely ill inmates who could be safely released to supervised custody, says Sen. Jeff Brandes. Credit: Florida Department of Corrections

Thousands of elderly and gravely ill inmates in Florida state prisons could be released early without risk to public safety, according to criminal-justice reformers pushing to change laws on the issue.

State Sen. Jeff Brandes, a Pinellas County Republican, is calling for early release of inmates age 65 and older who have served at least 10 years of their sentences, and early release of inmates diagnosed with debilitating illness, terminal illness, or permanent incapacitation.

It moves authority to approve such releases from the Florida Commission on Offender Review to Department of Corrections Secretary Mark Inch.

Florida state prisons report they have released few inmates over the years due to advanced illness and have released none due to advanced age, even when those inmates faced higher risk of contracting and dying of COVID-19.

The disease has killed 202 inmates as of Wednesday, according to the Department of Corrections.

Brandes’ legislation includes a package of four reforms that cleared its first legislative hearing Wednesday.

Brandes’ plan, which passed 7-0, also calls for “Second Look” sentencing review and possible early release of certain offenders who were convicted as juveniles and are serving decades-long prison sentences.

Further, it would require law enforcement officers to record the entirety of all interrogations they conduct with a detained person.

In testimony before the Senate Criminal Justice Committee Wednesday, witnesses supporting the measures included crime victims advocating for “restorative justice” – meaning correctional sentences designed to rehabilitate offenders rather than solely punish them.

“Prison is no place for a child,” said witness Ann Wilson. She said her son, a juvenile, was convicted of murdering his father after a violent episode brought on my drugs prescribed for him. “My son suffered from a few minutes of insanity due to drugs he was required to take,” Wilson continued. “Justice is not served by keeping him in prison for 20 and a half years.”

Sen. Brandes, who co-chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, and committee chairman Sen. Jason Pizzo, a Democrat from Miami-Dade, pushed similar reforms in the Legislature last year. They won support in the Senate but had not in the House of Representatives.