Prison Reform Supporters Appear Hopeful As Bill Nears Finish Line

Apr 27, 2015

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The House’s prison reform package is now on its way back to the Senate for approval, before it can head to the Governor’s desk for the final OK.

For about a month, the prison reform packages of both the House and Senate have had some similarities and some differences. Now, the proposals are the same, after the House just passed a prison reform package—a new compromise between the House and Senate.

No longer included are provisions changing the way the head of the Department of Corrections is chosen, tracking use of force cases, and having more avenues for inmates to report abuse.

But, the bill’s main House sponsor, Rep. Carlos Trujillo (R-Miami) says the bill’s original goal has not changed: reforming Florida’s troubled prison system.

“The one thing we have to fix before we focus on any of the other problems facing the institution is how do we solve or how do we limit the amount of inmates that are dying in custody—a lot of these cases which have gone completely unsolved,” said Trujillo. “So, our focus started with that premise. Senator Evers and I, and Chairman McBurney have worked off of that premise. There were other provisions—some that were in the Senate version, some that were in the House—that were reformatory in nature, but didn’t attack the particular problem that we’re facing…so we decided to limit the scope of the bill to issues that deal specifically with inmate and officer safety.”

So, what does the bill now do?

“It includes most of the major provisions of the Senate,” added Trujillo. “However, we’ve added a few additional things. Amongst them are a pilot program with body cameras that will take place at one designated facility. We also have removed the commission that was created by the Senate. Instead, we’ll create a Joint Select Committee by designation of the Speaker and Senate President.”

That Joint Select Committee will now replace the one major difference between the House and Senate proposals.  Previously, an oversight board only contained within the Senate’s version that could do surprise inspections and conduct its own investigations.

But, some lawmakers questioned the differences between the Joint Legislative Select Committee and the oversight board originally in the Senate proposal in terms of their independence.

That included Rep. Darryl Rouson (D-St. Petersburg).

“Will this legislative commission have the same level of independent review oversight that the independent review commission was talked about having,” asked Rouson.

“Absolutely, Representative Rouson,” Trujillo replied.  “This Joint Select Committee will have the subpoena power obviously with the approval of the Speaker and the Senate President and the ability with to request review and analyze documents like any other committee has currently in the Florida House.]”

What Trujillo says he does not want is:

“So, is our function as legislators to go into the day-to-day operational management of the Department of Correction,” he asked “And, I think all of us would agree that that’s not our job. So, we’ve set the committee, and the function is truly to review the organizational structure and any issues that are arising out of that department. So, that’s going to be structure of the committee, hopefully.”

Another area stricken from the bill came through an amendment by Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fort Walton Beach). It would have allowed certain inmates to work towards getting an earlier release from prison—essentially expanding the scope of a process called gain time.

That didn’t sit well with Rep. Randolph Bracy (D-Orlando), the bill’s House co-sponsor.

“Gain time is something that inmates use for incentive,” said Bracy. “Sometimes it’s a reward for getting your GED, and this is something that that they look forward to and work hard to get. So, it’s a behavior modification tool for the Department of Corrections.”

But, Gaetz disagreed, adding the measure doesn’t account for certain inmates that he believes shouldn’t be eligible for an earlier release.

“I can’t imagine sitting down with someone who lost a family member, as a result of someone we’ve released from prison, and saying, ‘well, gee, sorry this happened. Sorry, we let him out early, but this is really valuable tool in the Corrections system. That wouldn’t seem equitable to me,” stated Gaetz.

Still, while even with disagreements as to what should be included in the proposal, all agree it’s a long time coming. Among them is Representative Rouson.

“All of us are aware of the atrocities, the abuses, the unexplained, unresolved deaths, the spike in such deaths that have been occurring, and the fact that we’ve had a revolving door when it comes to Secretaries—trying to root out vestiges of a culture, which has probably led to some of these atrocities. I wish this bill would have gone further. I wish it would do more, but understanding that gains sometimes comes in increments,” said Rouson.

And, the measure passed the House unanimously last week. It’s now going back to the Senate for approval, and  Sen. Rob Bradley (R-Fleming Island) says he can’t wait to see it get across the finish line.

He was instrumental in including the oversight board among other areas in the original Senate proposal. But, does he believe that’s now been watered down by the House? He says no.

“I think the process has a way of bringing out good critiques of ideas,” said Bradley, speaking to WFSU. “And, so I think having the oversight committee/commission—whatever you want to call it—be made up of Senators and House members who will own the work product, I think that was a change that will ultimately be for the better.”

In addition to the new oversight Commission, the new compromise also includes an agreement between the jails and the DOC to allow county jails to house certain non-violent offenders as well as making it easier to fire investigators within the DOC’s Inspector General's office which does internal investigations.

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