Democratic lawmakers push sentencing reform bills

Sen. Randolph Bracy, flanked by Reps. Kionne McGhee and Dianne Hart, talks about sentencing reform.

Looking to reduce a prison population nearing 100,000 inmates, Florida lawmakers are advancing a plan to let non-violent felons out of prison earlier if they are well-behaved.

Under bills filed in the House and Senate for the 2020 session, non-violent felons would have to serve 65 percent of their sentences, down from the existing 85 percent. To receive the 35 percent reduction – known as “gain time” – in their sentences, the inmates would have to demonstrate good behavior.

Orlando Democratic Sen. Randolph Bracy is sponsoring the Senate version (SB 394) because the 85 percent mandate for non-violent prisoners “is ineffective,” he said during a news conference in the Capitol.

“It’s costly and it’s unnecessarily harsh,” Bracy said. “It’s ineffective because it hampers the motivation for inmates to participate in rehabilitative programs. These programs reduce recidivism. These programs develop a more productive person, and ultimately these programs reduce crime.”

Rep. Dianne Hart, a Tampa Democrat who is sponsoring the House version (HB 189), said the legislation could reduce the prison population by some 10,000 inmates and save the state around $1 billion over five years.

“This massive overcrowding is a direct result of our outdated sentencing policies that we continue to apply to this present day,” Hart said.

She said the savings that result from a smaller inmate population could be used to improve the aging prisons and fund vocational, educational, and other rehabilitation programs for the prisoners. She also said that a smaller population would improve safety for both inmates and correctional officers.

“We want to ensure that those incarcerated are equipped with the tools and resources they need to effectively re-enter society upon their release,” said Hart, who has visited 34 correctional facilities since she took office in 2018. “We’ve kicked this can down the road for far too long and we’re now out of road.”

Rep. Kionne McGhee, a Miami Democrat who is also sponsoring the House bill, said lawmakers can back the potential for shorter sentences for non-violent felons while remaining “tough on crime.”

“We’re not saying release the murderers. No. We’re not saying release those who were going to come out and who have shown a propensity to commit crimes,” McGhee said. “We’re saying release the young man and young woman who simply fell on hard times, who simply want an opportunity to be rehabilitated.”

Lawmakers proposed similar legislation in the 2019 session. It gained some support in the Senate but hit a roadblock in the House, where the bill never advanced out of its first committee.

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