Fla. Prison Reform Package Clears Another Panel, But Not Without Bipartisan Concerns

Mar 4, 2015

A comprehensive prison reform package cleared another Senate committee Wednesday. But, at the bill’s next stop, the measure may look a little different due to some bipartisan concerns with the omnibus bill.

The Senate’s omnibus prison reform package is authored by Baker Republican Senator Greg Evers. It includes areas like monitoring use of force incidents, putting more provisions in place to make sure there’s adequate health care for inmates, and tries to address the high turnover of Secretaries in recent years in charge of Florida’s prison system.

The Florida Department of Corrections has come under fire for inmate deaths, allegations of abuse by prison guards, and cover-ups as well as understaffing and officer shift issues.

“It changes how the Secretary is appointed by requiring the appointment by the Governor along with the concurrence of the three members of the Cabinet,” said Evers, during a hearing Wednesday. “It creates the Florida Corrections Commission to oversee the safety and effective operations of Florida’s prisons. This commission will have nine members who will be community leaders, business leaders, pastors, public defenders, and state attorneys. It can conduct investigations, inspect private and public facilities, identify high risk facilities, monitor violence of prisons, and the introduction of contraband.”

While all members of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice liked the overall bill, some, like Senate Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner (D-Tampa), wanted changes to be made to the oversight board, including allowing former inmates to sit on the panel “for their insights since they are really an insider as to what goes on in prisons.”

She added, “And, some persons who have been released, as we are all aware, have become outstanding citizens who may have something to offer. Of course, you’re going to have to define it with some degree of specificity.”

Others, like the committee’s chairman Sen. Joe Negron (R-Stuart), worried over some of the language in the bill that creates penalties for not providing adequate care for certain inmates. For example, it would now be a third degree felony for DOC employees or prison health care provider employees to willfully neglect an elderly or disabled inmate.

“It’s pretty clear cut that you weren’t doing something illegal, then you did something illegal, you stole a car,” said Negron. “When you criminalize the failure to do something, you have to be very careful because how is that defined? I’m now being punished because I didn’t do something and it’s imposing this affirmative duty and not telling me exactly what the duty is.”

And, Sen. Rob Bradley (R-Fleming Island) saw that as a valid concern as well.

“If Rob Bradley goes to a hospital and is treated horribly by medical providers and they commit gross negligence,” said Bradley. “In that circumstance, it’s just a potential lawsuit. But, if I happen to be an inmate in jail in the same exact lack of care is provided to me, that’s all of a sudden a third degree felony.”

Still, Evers said while he appreciates the feedback, he didn’t want to weigh down the bill too much.

“I want to hear the input, but I also want everyone to consider this is a pretty heavy lift right now because we’re changing the atmosphere, we’re trying to change the culture, we’re trying to change the thinking in DOC, and we’re trying to do it through statute. And, it’s hard to regulate common sense through statute,” said Evers.

Other suggestions include not subjecting the nine-member oversight board panel to gubernatorial appointment alone as well as requiring all correctional officers to undergo mental health training as opposed to only those who oversee mentally ill inmates. The measure now has one more stop to go before it heads to the Senate floor.

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