Here’s an idea to reduce Florida prison overcrowding

Florida prisoners are able to get time off their sentence due to good behavior, but our state has much tougher sentencing requirements than many others. Changing that, a new study says, could reduce prison overcrowding.

Florida law says that offenders who committed an offense after 1995 have to serve a minimum of 85 percent of their sentence, regardless of how they conduct themselves in prison. But criminal justice reform advocates say that with more than 96,000 inmates crowding Florida jails, the state’s Department of Corrections needs to find more ways to reduce the number of inmates.

A study published last week by the Washington-D.C.- based Urban Institute suggests that Florida’s “time served” requirement (sometimes called “gain time”) should be adjusted from 85 percent to 65 percent.

“Florida’s sentencing structure does not effectively match prison sentence length to public safety needs. Florida locks up too many people for too long,” said Raymer Maguire with the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.  Maguire is also the campaign manager for the Florida Campaign for Criminal Justice Reform.

“If our lawmakers pursued common-sense sentencing reforms, our state could see our prison population drop by 18 percent and it would begin to address the incarceration rates that are driven by flawed policies, like placing counterproductive caps on gain time, not by crimes,” Maguire said.

One proposal in the Legislature by state Rep. Dianne Hart, a Democrat from Tampa, would revise the incentive gain-time that the state grants  prisoners for certain offenses, and revises how inmates can earn one-time “awards” of 60 days of incentive gain-time. It has not been heard in any committee yet – and that prospect is unlikely as the legislative session hits its halfway mark.

The Urban Institute study also recommends the state adjust “time served” requirements to individual circumstances,  such allowing some people to serve the last portion of sentences in their community, not prison.

Such a strategy, the report says, would help address the state’s prison overcrowding, and it could allow the state to reverse recent cuts made to critical services that help rehabilitate prisoners, including mental health and substance abuse treatment, as well as support to help them re-enter society.

Another suggestion is adopting a “second look” provision that allows judges to examine long sentences after someone has served a certain period in prison and decide whether adjustments are appropriate.

“A majority of Floridians believe the primary purpose of our prison system should be rehabilitation, not punishment,” says Shalini Goel Agarwal, senior supervising attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center Action Fund. “Changing the gain time requirements would give incarcerated people who are rehabilitated the opportunity to return home to their families sooner, incentivizing good behavior and making our prisons safer.”

 

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