Could Some Criminal Justice Bills, Like Senate's Prison Reform Package, Be Dead This Session?

Mar 3, 2016

Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones speaking to reporters Sunday.
Credit Florida Channel

As a number of criminal justice issues continue to move in the Florida Legislature, others may be dead this session. That includes a Senate effort to build on past prison reforms.

The Senate Criminal Justice Committee—led by Sen. Greg Evers (R-Baker)—drafted and approved a proposal that included a series of prison reforms.

The Florida Department of Corrections had come under scrutiny for inmate deaths, allegations of abuse by prison guards, and cover ups. So, last year, the House and Senate tried and failed to pass a comprehensive prison reform package to address those concerns.

Governor Rick Scott later included parts of the bills in two Executive Orders. They included ways to address use of force incidents, additional training, and surprise inspections.

Now, Evers wants to build on those reforms. This year’s bill includes monitoring elderly offenders and making it a third degree felony for a corrections officer to intentionally harm an inmate.

Back in October, that latter provision faced some resistance from Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones “because there’s already felony provisions in law for any type of battery.”

“You know, singling out corrections officers for an additional charge, I think, isn’t necessary, but we’ll work with the committee,” Jones added, at the time.

Another provision that concerned some lawmakers and stakeholders impacts a current law, requiring inmates to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence, before they’re eligible for parole. Under the bill, an inmate could serve less than 85 percent of their sentence, if they met certain educational goals.

While that bill passed the committee unanimously about a month ago, it doesn’t have a House companion. That was also the bill’s first hearing and it’s never come up in its two remaining committees.

A similar bill by that same committee has also had one hearing. It allows the courts to depart from the minimum mandatory sentences for certain offenders. It would also allow certain non-violent offenders to serve 65 percent of their sentence, instead of the 85-percent rule.

A staff analysis says that could reduce Florida’s prisoner population by close to 7,800 inmates over a five year period and save the state nearly $1 billion.

Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the state’s public defenders and criminal defense attorneys are for it. The State Attorneys and the Florida Sheriffs are against it.

Matt Dunagan with the Florida Sheriffs Association says the current law allowing offenders to leave, after serving 85-percent of their sentence for good behavior is fine.

“Right now, they can get out at 85 percent, instead of serving the full 100 percent,” he said. “We believe that 85 percent, that is the threshold. That’s what we’ve had here for many decades.”

And, before it passed his committee unanimously, Evers acknowledged that this could be it for the bill this year.

“The people are telling us they want us to think smarter because they do feel safe, but they want us to think smarter about how we incarcerate people here in the state of Florida,” he said. “They want us to follow other states and think outside the box. This bill, this may be the last committee that this bill sees this year. But, I’m sure the bill will come back in years to come because the voters speak every two years.”

Meanwhile, Prison Chief Julie Jones hasn’t weighed in on that bill “because I’m at the end of the judicial process. So, they come to me, after all those policy decisions are made.”

But, she says there are a few others on her radar “like the department’s bill for alternative sentencing and changes in probation violation.”

Jones also likes a bill by Rep. Charles McBurney, the House Judiciary Committee chairman.

“Rep. McBurney’s bill that looks at drug courts, mental health courts, veteran’s courts is going to influence how we treat an individual in community and keep them under supervision,” she said, speaking to reporters. “I don’t mind supervising them in community because it’s far cheaper than getting them behind the fence and supervising them. So, that’s where I’m pushing, hoping that decision makers are trying to work at the community level before they come to prison to stabilize my prison population, and I think we’re going to get there.”

Meanwhile, a legislative aide to Evers says they’re hoping to add aspects of both committee bills onto other bills in the Senate as well as the House, but, he says it doesn’t appear that there is an appetite for it.

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