A panel of Florida lawmakers moved several bills forward Wednesday attempting to address certain hot-button issues within the state’s criminal justice system from juvenile sentencing to unintended consequences of firing a warning shot. They also confirmed the appointment of Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Mike Crews, who also gave Senators an update on the prison system.
DOC Secretary Talks Budget Deficit, Prison Health Care Privatization
At the start of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee hearing, Corrections’ Secretary Mike Crews talked about the progress his agency has made in cutting the department's budget deficit by almost half.
“I am proud to say that if you go back to November 2012, we projected a deficit of almost $120 million when July 1st started. Our last management report last month, that deficit is projected down to about $58 million,” said Crews.
Crews says he’s cut costs by putting in new paper and paper towel contracts, which saved the state $850,000 a year. He’s also teaming up with the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association to see if the industry can donate bed sheets, pillowcases, and washcloths to the prisons.
Crews also touted a now-finished privatization effort that had led to a contentious court battle between his agency and unions who represented employees afraid to lose their state jobs.
“On October 17th, we fully privatized health services across the state of Florida, the largest in the country of undertaking privatization of health services in Corrections. And, if you look at what it was costing the Department of Corrections for health services versus now what we have under the new contract with our two providers, Corizon and Wexford, you’re looking at anywhere from a $40-50 million savings that we’ll see out of that,” he added.
DOC To Appeal Kosher Meals Ruling
But, Crews says a recent federal judge’s ruling could hinder those cost saving efforts that mandates the department offer kosher meals to all prisoners with a “sincere religious basis,” and his agency will appeal.
“Outside of the financial part of what this could do to the agency, the next most concerning thing for me is the timeframe in which she’s put us under to accomplish this. And, in the order, it says she expects us to have this in place and moving forward by July 1st, 2014, and that’s going to be a challenge,” said Crews.
Kosher meals, so far, are offered at only one state prison. Under the department’s policy, there were conditions that needed to be met for an inmate to qualify, including a rule which disqualifies a prisoner who fails to eat at least 90 percent of his or her meals. The federal judge ruled the agency could no longer use those conditions, and must serve the meals statewide.
Reforms Attempt To Address 2013 Prison Escapes
Crews also spoke about his strengths and weaknesses in addressing inmate escapes that occurred last year through the use of fraudulent orders.
“From my perspective, it was me being personal involved and not just me, but making sure I was involved from Day 1, once we recognized what had happened with these two individuals. Weaknesses, Mr. Chairman, I guess I would say ‘they got out.’ And, we identified there was a glitch in our process, and I don’t mean in our process or just the clerks, we had a glitch in the system. And, we’re moving rapidly to try and rectify that," said Crews.
Florida lawmakers are also hoping to address that situation. Senators approved a proposed committee bill that requires the Florida Department of Corrections verify the authenticity of court orders that attempt to early release a prisoner. It now needs to be officially filed in the Senate.
'Warning Shot' Bill Passes First Senate Panel
Senators also unanimously approved a bill that attempts to address the unintended consequences of the state’s 10-20-Life law. It’s inspired by Marissa Alexander, a Jacksonville woman who fired a warning shot during an alleged domestic violence dispute and had received a 20-year-prison sentence. The bill’s Senate sponsor is Baker Republican Senator Greg Evers, who’s also chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.
“I think this bill speaks loudly to the state attorneys, to the State Attorney Association that this Legislature will not put up with folks who are using their lawful right to display a gun, or are firing a warning shot,” said Evers.
And, while the bill did not receive opposition, State Attorney Bill Cervone from Alachua County says he takes issue with how much bill supporters vilified state prosecutors.
“I think it’s very important for all of you to note that you are hearing only from folks who are one side of this and when we are in-taking these cases and deciding to make decisions about prosecution, we are also looking at the other side of it, and making very difficult judgments that the law has always placed in our hands, and ultimately in the hands of a judge and a jury to resolve those factual disputes,” said Cervone.
Juvenile Sentencing Reform Bill Passes
Another measure that passed its first Senate committee dealt with juvenile sentencing reform. Lawmakers tried to address the issue last year, but the effort failed. Fleming Island Republican Senator Rob Bradley, the bill’s author, is resurrecting the effort again, and says the issue must be addressed this year. It’s in response to a couple of U.S. Supreme Court decisions that state juveniles cannot face a life sentence without the possibility of parole, whether they committed a serious felony or murder.
“The bill provides that any offender who’s convicted of murder committed before he or she was 18-years-old can be sentenced to life in prison, but only after a mandatory hearing at which the judge considers specific factors, like the offender’s age and the intended circumstances,” said Bradley.
In Bradley’s bill, a judge could impose a minimum of 35 years in prison if they determine a life sentence is not appropriate in a murder case. The bill also provides for a judicial hearing to review any sentence of more than 25 years that is imposed for a non-homicide offense.
It passed 4 to 1, with one Democrat opposed. Among the other measures passed during Wednesday’s hearing include a bill that would prohibit the sale of electronic cigarettes to minors. It has two more committees to go before it heads to the Senate floor.
For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.