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Sen. Brandes Has Five Bills Clear Criminal Justice Panel, One Expands Definition Of 'Confinement'

Ryan Dailey

Republican Senator Jeff Brandes has a group of criminal justice reform bills already moving ahead of the 2020 session. Several of them passed the Senate Criminal Justice Committee Tuesday.

All five of Brandes’ bills that were up in committee, most concerning sentencing reform, passed unanimously. One expands the pool of felony offenders who are eligible for prison diversion programs. Another introduces two new circumstances under which sentences can be reduced – one being if the defendant needs special treatment for addiction or a physical disability.

Most passed quickly with little discussion. That’s until the Committee got to Brandes’ bill concerning the definition of confinement under the Department of Corrections.

“There is currently no data to suggest that $50 and a bus pass is the best way to release an inmate,” Brandes said in introducing the measure. “This bill authorizes the Department of Corrections to allow an inmate to participate in a supervised community release program up to 365 days before their technical release date.”

The measure, Senate Bill 572, would expand the definition of confinement in the Department of Corrections to include time spent in the department’s care, custody, supervision or control through participation in a program.

The bill was amended by Democratic Sen. Randolph Bracy of Orange County to include a gain time provision. That’s something Brandes advocated for last session: to reduce a state requirement that the incarcerated must serve 85 percent of their sentence, even with time earned, to 65 percent.

Credit Ryan Dailey / WFSU-FM
Senator Randolph Bracy is the principle backer of a gain time bill in the Senate for the 2020 session.

“This amendment allows non-violent offenders to earn more incentive gain time for good behavior, diligent work, educational attainment and other constructive programming, by lowering the 85 percent threshold to 65 percent – and for it to be applied retroactively,” Bracy explained. “As our secretary has stated numerous times – our current model is unsustainable, and I believe we have no choice but to lower the threshold for gain time.”

Bracy also has a standalone gain time bill filed this session. Tampa Democratic Representative Dianne Hart is carrying a gain time bill in the House.

State estimators in April said the gain time provision could take more than 9,000 people out of the prison population by 2023-24. Estimators also said it could potentially save state as much as $860 million.

Rep. Hart was on hand for the Senate committee, and addressed that savings.

“Not only do we get people to go home earlier – we also get to save over $800 million over a five-year period,” Hart said. “I think it’s critically important that we put those dollars back into our system to educate people and prepare them to go home.”

Greg Newburn is policy director for advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums Florida. He was at the meeting in support of each of Brandes’ bills.

“If you expand what confinement means, then you expand the ways that people can serve their sentences. So it’s not just behind bars or in a facility, it might be under community control, or out on work release a little bit earlier than what the current law provides,” Newburn said of Brandes’ bill on the definition of confinement. “Because the 85 percent requirement says they have to be in confinement – this expands what confinement means, so it would allow folks to serve their time in different, more productive ways.”

And, Brandes noted the bipartisan support for his proposals.

Credit Ryan Dailey / WFSU-FM
Democratic Rep. Dianne Hart is backing a gain time bill in the Florida House for the 2020 session.

“This is what the data and research leads us to – that the science supports this decision today and this legislation,” Brandes said. “I would ask for your favorable support, and I’m encouraged to see this becoming a bipartisan issue that is beginning to reach across chambers.”

Brandes is known for taking a lead role in criminal justice reform measures. He also has a bill this session that would allow for inmates aged 70 or older who meet certain criteria, to be released early.

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.