Senate budget chief: ‘You can’t incarcerate your way out of crime’

Incarceration has risen since 1986 while crime rates have fallen. Some senators say it's time to switch to less-costly diversion programs. Source: Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability (OPPAGA) 2019

Nonviolent drug felons don’t belong in Florida’s expensive, overcrowded prisons, says state Sen. Rob Bradley, a prosecutor and a Republican, and the Senate Criminal Justice Committee agreed Tuesday, approving a plan to establish alternatives for many offenders.

Bradley, who represents part of north central Florida and chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, is sponsoring legislation to dismantle mandatory minimum sentences that send thousands of low-risk offenders to prison.

The state’s prison population has grown tenfold since 1973, to approximately 100,000, although state data show that crime has been declining since 1986.

Bradley’s proposal (SB 346) would restore judges’ discretion to decide which drug offenders qualify as low-risk and eligible for non-prison programs. A similar provision failed during the last legislative session.

“State prison needs to be reserved for the worst of the worst,” Bradley said. “You can’t incarcerate your way out of crime.”

Bradley cited a January study by the non-partisan Florida Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability reporting that low-risk offenders sentenced to prison alternatives are less likely than incarcerated counterparts to later commit more crimes.

It also concludes that prison alternatives are less expensive than incarceration, which costs about $22,000 a year per inmate. The Florida Department of Corrections budget is $2.7 billion.

Sen. Randolph Bracy, an Orange County Democrat on the committee, is one of the Senate leaders on sentencing reform aiming for greater justice and lower costs. He was the only senator last session to vote against a package of reforms after it was stripped of key provisions that would have granted discretion to judges and gain time to inmates for good behavior.

“This is something [I] and many people in my party have worked on for years,” Bracy said, thanking Republican senators for joining the cause from their position in the GOP majority.

Gary Hester, representing the Florida Police Chiefs Association, opposed parts of Bradley’s bill, saying they would give judges too much discretion in cases when it’s hard to tell whether a defendant is a dangerous drug trafficker or a low-risk user.

Hester insisted mandatory minimum sentencing deters crime, and cited testimony before the committee last week by Thomas Blomberg, dean of criminology and criminal justice at Florida State University, that such sentencing “seems to be working.”

“We don’t want addicts in prison. But we do want drug traffickers held accountable,” Hester said.

Bradley countered that it is precisely the job of judges to weigh the evidence and make those distinctions.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, a Pinellas County Republican and vice chairman of the committee, has long opposed mandatory minimum sentencing. He said Hester took Blomberg’s comment out of context. The professor is studying racial and ethnic disparity in Florida’s criminal justice system.

Last week’s hearing transcript shows that Blomberg did state that mandatory minimum sentencing seems to be working, but only as a deterrent to inmates who have already been incarcerated. It does not otherwise deter crime, Blomberg said at the time. What clearly does reduce recidivism, he said, is education and employment.

The committee also approved plans to ban solitary confinement for young inmates, curb police searches of cellphones and other electronic devices without warrants, divert mentally ill defendants in diversion programs, and expand compensation for wrongful incarceration.