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Gain Time Provision In Senate's First Step Act Could Decrease Prison Population By 9,000 In 5 Years

Ryan Dailey

A provision in the Senate’s big criminal justice reform bill could make a big impact early on, if signed into law. That impact would come in the form of fewer people incarcerated, and significant savings for the state.

The Criminal Justice Impact Conference on Monday looked at the Senate’s Florida First Step Act. Among a number of reforms the measure seeks to bring about, one applies to how much time can get lopped off a sentence for good behavior.

Republican Senator Jeff Brandes is the bill’s principal backer. Last week during a press conference he discussed the provision, which reduces a state requirement that the incarcerated must serve 85 percent of their sentence, to 65 percent. It’s called the ‘Truth In Sentencing’ law. Brandes says it’s among the most significant reforms in the measure.

“I think there’s probably three or four, what I would consider major reforms,” Brandes said. “I think the addition of the 65 percent gain time and piercing the 85 percent arbitrary threshold, I think it’s a huge reform. Especially allowing for individuals who have committed themselves, while incarcerate, to doing the right things.”

State estimators say the bill's gain time provision could take more than 9,000 people out of the prison population by 2023-24 and potentially save state as much as $860 million dollars.

Matthew Hasbrouck with the state Office of Economic and Demographic Research sits on the Criminal Justice Impact Conference. He explained that change to the gain time cap would apply retrocatively, and be in place going forward.

“This one permits up to 20 days per month in incentive gain time,” Hasbrouck said. “This one … is applied retroactively for sentences imposed for offenses committed on or after October 1, 1995.”

Because of the provision's retroactivity, estimators say about 7,600 people could be removed from the system in first year.

The House has its own omnibus criminal justice reform bill moving through the legislature. But when both chambers’ comparable bills cleared their last committee stops last week, only the Senate included the provision changing the Truth In Sentencing rule.

But, as both chambers try to find common ground in hopes that a final measure will pass, there are signs of negotiation.

Republican Representative Byron Donalds says on the two criminal justice reform bills, there’s always a chance the House bill could adopt some Senate language. He joined Brandes at last week’s press conference concerning the measures.

“I think it’s something that I’m open to, I don’t want to speak for my colleagues in the House,” Donalds said. “Like you guys know around here, everything’s being negotiated right now.”

Judy Thompson is president of non-profit advocacy group Forgotten Majority. She has a son who is incarcerated, and spoke at last week’s House Appropriations Committee meeting. Thompson petitioned representatives to move toward the Senate on gain time.

“We can relieve the madness of mass-incarceration by increasing gain time across the board for every offender,” Thompson said. “And we can relieve that most immediately. Your bill does not incorporate any increase in cap for gain time.”

Thompson says if there’s no opportunity to use time credited for good behavior, incentive is gone.

“What it does is, it takes away the hope,” Thompson said. “It takes away incentives for people.”

If the measure passes, the increase in Florida’s gain time cap would only apply to inmates sentenced for nonviolent offenses.

Ryan Dailey is a reporter/producer for WFSU/Florida Public Radio. After graduating from Florida State University, Ryan went into print journalism working for the Tallahassee Democrat for five years. At the Democrat, he worked as a copy editor, general assignment and K-12 education reporter.