As Fla. Senate Considers Omnibus Bill, House Unveils Its Own Prison Reform Package

Mar 24, 2015

Credit Getty Images/iStockphoto

As the Florida Senate began to consider an omnibus bill to reform Florida’s troubled prison system, a Florida House committee has now also started to look into its own comprehensive reform package. But, there’s already one major difference between the two measures.

On Tuesday, the Florida Senate took up the comprehensive reform bill. Its main sponsor is Sen. Greg Evers (R-Baker).

“This is dealing with the education of the inmates, it deals with the health care providers, it deals with corruption, it deals with wrongdoing, and it addresses a lot of issues that we have heard a lot about in the papers on our Department of Corrections,” said Evers.

The huge bill includes changing how the Secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections is appointed by requiring Cabinet approval.

The measure was also changed Tuesday to include several new provisions. It includes making sure when chemical agents are used on inmates, it’s recorded. Another changes lowers the criminal penalties for those who don’t provide adequate care or health care to inmates—a provision Sen. Joe Negron (R-Stuart) championed.

Evers also spoke about what he called the “heart of the bill,” an oversight commission that can do surprise inspections and conduct its own investigations into the department. That provision was actually authored by Sen. Rob Bradley (R-Fleming Island).

“I know there’s a lot of talk that we don’t need a commission,” added Evers. “We don’t need an extra layer of Government.  I too believed that when we first started. But, after the tours, talking with people, finding out what’s going, Senator Bradley had the idea—in fact, had a bill that dealt with the commission alone. I asked Senator Bradley would he mind including his bill into this bill.”

And, Bradley agrees it’s an important component.

“You know, at some point in time, after seven or eight Secretaries in 10 years or nine years, saying this next Secretary is the change agent and is the reform agent, the words start to ring a bit hollow,” said Bradley. “And, there is a trust gap, quite frankly, between the legislative and the Executive at this point in time that I think requires a level of oversight.”

Still, that very provision is missing from the House’s version of the comprehensive prison reform package as that chamber appears resistant to that particular change. Republican leaders have called it an extra layer of bureaucracy.  

But, Deborah Brodsky with FSU's Project on Accountable Justice disagrees. It was her group that recommended the commission to Bradley. And, she spoke during the bipartisan measure’s unveiling in the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee Tuesday.

“What is proposed by the Senate is not a layer of bureaucracy,” said Brodsky. “This is simply good government and good governance, injecting a missing and necessary level of accountability into the system. This is the 7th secretary in eight years. This will not work! We will be standing here next year. We urge your consideration of the addition of an independent oversight commission.”

But, one of the bill’s main sponsors, Rep. Randolph Bracy (D-Orlando), says the bill is heading in the right direction.

“This bill addresses some concerns I think we have a long way to address some of the concerns into the Department of Corrections, but I think this is a great first step,” said Bracy.

And, Rep. Carlos Trujillo (R-Miami) agrees. He’s the bill’s other main sponsor in his capacity as chair of the panel.

Understaffing at the department and not giving correctional officers raises were among other issues raised by members of the panel as areas that need to be addressed. Still, Trujillo says the legislature also needs to make sure to prevent further unnatural inmates deaths.

“I can concur with some of the Representatives that obviously, better pay, could recruit better people, and some of the shortcomings were from lack of personnel or overworked personnel,” said Trujillo. “But, there’s one thing that can’t be explained by better pay or better benefits or promotions or anything of the like and that’s some of the homicides that took place. There’s no amount of pay or no amount of promotions that could have prevented those. And, those are things that I think as a legislature, we have a moral duty to look into.”

Meanwhile, both the Senate and House measures do have similarities, like making sure there’s more training for prison guards, more avenues for inmates to report abuse, and ensures there’s a written formal agreement between the Florida Department of Corrections and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement when investigating inmate deaths.

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