Florida House bill would allow inmates more time off for good behavior

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A proposal intended to relieve stress on Florida’s correctional officers, save hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars, and encourage good behavior by inmates has been filed in the Florida House of Representatives by two Democrats.

The legislation, sponsored by Dianne Hart of Tampa and Minority Leader Kionne McGhee of Cutler Bay, would retroactively drop the minimum time that nonviolent offenders must serve from 85 percent to 65 percent of their sentence.

The adjustment to what’s known as “gain time” was part of a massive criminal justice reform bill that advanced in the Florida Senate during the 2019 session, but was dropped when that bill was merged with the House version that the Legislature ultimately enacted.

Florida began enforcing the 85 percent gain-time requirement in 1985, when tough-on-crime laws were in vogue. That requirement is widely considered a major factor in growth of Florida’s prison population from approximately 64,000 in 1995 to around 96,000 now.

“Research has shown that the policy change failed to reduce recidivism,” McGhee said in a written statement released Thursday. “I agree that dangerous inmates must be punished. However, criminal justice reform should provide a second chance for nonviolent offenders to be rehabilitated.”

The Florida Office of Economic and Demographic Research, which evaluates policy for the Legislature, conducted an economic study of the proposal when it was pending during the 2019 legislative session. The office determined that a reduction of nearly 7,600 beds in the Florida Department of Corrections (FDC) would save nearly $74 million immediately and $860.4 million after five years.

That decline in headcount also would benefit Florida’s correctional officers, who, as Secretary Mark Inch testified before a Senate committee this week, are under unrelenting stress in handing the high number of inmates.

The department “suffers from gross overcrowding and consistent understaffing,” Hart said. Any money the legislation saves “should go directly back into FDC funding initiatives,” she said.

Advocates for the bill argue it also could reduce inmate disciplinary problems. The 85 percent gain-time law means that prisoners have less incentive to be on their best behavior, they say, because they have already maxed out on potential sentence reductions.

The bill has no Senate sponsor at present, but McGhee and Hart said they expect Orange County Democrat Randolph Bracy will carry it in the Legislature’s upper chamber when the 2020 session begins in January.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican who has been active on criminal justice reform, said this week that the proposal would help relieve the stress on the state’s corrections system, which he said is “in crisis.”

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