Bill Building On Past Florida Prison Reforms Continues Taking Shape

Feb 9, 2016

Sen. Greg Evers (R-Baker) speaking Monday during the Senate Criminal Justice Committee meeting, which he chairs.
Credit Florida Channel

A bill building on past reforms to Florida’s prison system is continuing to take shape.

Months ago, members of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee had drafted a proposal looking to further reform the troubled Florida Department of Corrections.

“This bill is a slimmed down version of the Corrections bill from the 2015 session,” said Tracy Sumner, a staff member of the Senate panel. “Nothing in this bill is currently being addressed by the Governor’s Executive Orders or anything that is currently being implanted by the Department or anything that can be addressed by rule.”

After the House and Senate ended session early last year amid a budget impasse, the Senate panel’s original omnibus prison reform package died in the process.

But, Governor Rick Scott did include elements of both the House and Senate proposals in a couple of Executive Orders. They include ways to address use of force cases, additional training, and surprise inspections.

Now, the Senate Criminal Justice Committee is looking into some other reforms, like monitoring the prison system’s elderly offenders. The aim is to cut down health care costs and consider early release options.

Another part of the bill could allow an inmate to have a one-time reduction in their sentence for furthering their education—which Sen. Rob Bradley (R-Fleming Island) questioned if it impacts current law, which requires all inmates to serve 85 percent of their prison sentence.

“Does this say an inmate would serve less than 85 percent of their sentence if they were to meet certain educational goals,” asked Bradley.

The response to that question is yes, and Sen. Greg Evers (R-Baker), the panel’s chair, says Bradley is not the only one with that concern. And, they will make changes moving forward.

One area that did raise some concerns for Prison Chief Julie Jones last year is a provision that she described as a way to “single out correctional officers.” But, Evers says that’s not the case.

“What that particular issue is when we’re talking about a third degree felony, and that is through employees or correctional officers that intentionally harm an inmate that they can be prosecuted under a third degree felony,” said Evers, at the time.

Some lawmakers tried to make changes to the proposal, including Sen. Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg) and Sen. Audrey Gibson (D-Jacksonville).

Last year’s prison reform package included an independent oversight board made up of multiple members of the criminal justice system.

This year, lawmakers appear to want to build on an existing commission called the Florida Criminal Justice Standards and Training Commission.

Both Brandes and Gibson want to expand commission membership to include a circuit judge as well as a member of the State Attorney’s office. But, Gibson wanted to add another member.

“This amendment simply adds the Public Defender’s office to the list of members,” said Gibson. “We had the judge, the other members, the State Attorney, and so, I thought we should add balance and add the Public Defender’s office.”

But, because Evers says he wants the proposals to stay mostly free of any changes for now, both Brandes and Gibson withdrew their suggestions.

Evers did allow one change by Gibson, who says it adds to the projections of the elderly offenders “to include the ethnicity and health status of those elderly offenders, such as if they have diabetes or high blood pressure, if we’re going to take the time to look at what the population likes like, we should include all of those factors.”

And, overall, Evers—as the panel’s chair—says he’s proud of their work so far.

“You know, members this is something that we’ve worked on for quite awhile and it is our intention to move it forward last year,” said Evers. “Some things happened, and we weren’t able to, but I appreciate the support and I appreciate that this committee has done on that. Also, I appreciate the staff for the fine work they’ve done.”

And, the Senate Criminal Justice unanimously agreed to advance the proposal.

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.