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Report: If Lawmakers Don't Do Anything, Fla. Prison Population Will Increase

Sascha Cordner

If Florida lawmakers don’t do anything policy wise soon, the state’s prison population could increase. That’s according to a report commissioned by the Florida Senate to promote the need for prison reform.

The report is called “Data-Driven Solutions to Improve Florida’s Criminal Justice System.” Len Engel is the Director of Policy and Campaigns with the Crime and Justice Institute.

“Last Spring, the Crime and Justice Institute worked on a project managed by OPPAGA that analyzed criminal justice data from the DOC and the court system,” said Engel. “In that analysis, we found that the prisoner population in Florida had grown exponentially in the last 40 years—373 percent since the late 1970s, finally leveling off in 2010 at about 102,000 people incarcerated.”

The Institute’s report found Florida’s prisoner population has fluctuated around the 100,000 mark, during the past decade.  

In the last couple years, the state's prison population has been on the decline. As of last year, more than 96-thousand people were in Florida’s prisons.

Engel says the recent decline can be attributed to the reduction in low-level offenders going to prison as well as the Florida Department of Corrections putting procedures in place to assist those on probation.

Still, Engel says even with the drop, two factors have largely offset those efforts.

“First is lengths of sentence, and the second is the amount of time people serve on these sentences,” he added. “So, if most states experienced similar declines in their admitted population—the number of people coming into the prison—you’d see much more significant reductions in the overall prison population. But, you haven’t in Florida because sentence lengths have increased by 22 percent and the amount of time served on those sentences have also increased.”

Now, the Institute is proposing several recommendations for Florida’s prisons using data from other states with similar issues.

“The research shows us a handful of fairly clear findings,” he continued. “1) Sending low-level offenders to prison is more likely to increase their criminal behavior. 2) Longer prison term, especially for non-violent offenders, do not reduce recidivism more than shorter terms of incarceration. 3) Treatment programs delivered in the community are more effective than treatment programs delivered in prison.”

Sen. Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg) had asked for the study to be commissioned. He says he’s already come away with ideas from the recommendations.

“At least three or four of these recommendations could be implemented this year,” said Brandes. “I think specifically felony thresholds is being discussed this year, conditional medical release is being discussed this year, those who suffering from terminal illness are being addressed this year, diversion being addressed this year—largely drug courts, veterans’ courts—all of those types of diversion discussions are happening this year, more electronic monitoring and technology are being discussed this year.”

Yet, Brandes says some proposals could take some time.

“We’re in the process of kind of ranking these recommendations and saying, ‘Alright, what are the kind of low-hanging fruit here that we can begin to address?’ And, I think we’re already well into session, and addressing many of these recommendations,” he added. “But, I think over the next four or five years, you’re going to see us begin to implement many of these recommendations and have that data to support them and be able to get the legislators comfortable with those solutions.”

Brandes has already sponsored several measures he’s hoping will reform Florida’s criminal justice system. Some bills have already passed their first House and Senate committees.

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

Sascha Cordner has more than ten years of public radio experience. It includes working at NPR member station WUFT-FM in Gainesville for several years. She's worked in both radio and TV, serving in various capacities as a reporter, producer and anchor. She's also a graduate of the University of Florida with a bachelor's degree in telecommunications. She is the recipient of 15 awards from the Associated Press, Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), and Edward R. Murrow. Her award-winning stories include her coverage on the infamous “Dozier School for Boys” and a feature titled "Male Breast Cancer: Lost in the Sea of Pink." Currently, Sascha serves as the host and producer of local and state news content for the afternoon news program "All Things Considered" at WFSU. Sascha primarily covers criminal justice and social services issues. When she's not reporting, Sascha likes catching up on her favorite TV shows, singing and reading. Follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter:@SaschaCordner.