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Inmate Early Release Bill To Be Heard During Closing Weeks Of Session

Jail inmates playing chess in cell, prison hobby
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With time winding down bills that haven’t gotten a first hearing are starting to near their death. One measure running out of time would allow non-violent prisoners to be released sooner. It would increase the amount of time off for good behavior. Gain time bill sponsors are trying to rally support.

Sponsor Rep. Dianne Hart (D-Tampa) says the legislation would help reduce the prison population by making thousands of people eligible for an earlier release.

“Currently there are over 94,000 inmates behind bars in the state of Florida. 44% of those are considered non-violent offenders," Hart said.

Offenders with a nonviolent felony could earn up to 35% off of their sentence. Currently they can only earn up to 15%.

"According to the Office of Economic and Demographic Research their estimates say within the first 5 years of the implementation of that bill, House bill 189, over 9,000 inmates could return to the work force, to their communities, and to their family," Hart said. "This step alone would save over 800 million dollars over the next 5 years."

Department of Corrections Secretary Mark Inch said during a committee meeting last year the high population of inmates has made conditions worse.

“The inmate culture is clearly showing signs of stress. As expressed by rising inmate violence," Inch said. "We have inmates that choose to maintain a criminal lifestyle, some organize into security threat groups or gangs to seek self-protection or take advantage of staffing shortages and the inconsistent availability of academic and vocational education programs designed to contribute to our rehabilitative and restorative goals.”

Inch has asked for more funding. Hart and co-sponsors of the gain time bill believe the measure will make available some of the funding he will need.

"If we don’t get this bill passed this year, I have six years if the people will have me. We will see a change in our correctional facilities," Hart said. "There’s got to be a change we can’t sustain ourselves where we are today. And even the secretary will say that to you himself. Somethings got to change and this is just teeny weenie step."

The House gain time bill’s first committee stop would be the Criminal Justice committee chaired by Tampa Sen. James Grant. In order for it to be heard he would have to put it on the calendar. In the Senate the gain time sponsor St. Petersburg Republican Senator Jeff Brandes is the chair of the committee the bill is to be heard next week. Brandes says historically the House hears criminal justice reform issues in the last few weeks of session.

The Florida Sheriffs and Police Chiefs association came out against the bill during a recent press conference. They claim low-level drug offenders are violent, but Tampa Democratic Representative Dianne Hart says that’s not what their bill is about.

Blaise Gainey is a State Government Reporter for WFSU News. Blaise hails from Windermere, Florida. He graduated from The School of Journalism at the Florida A&M University. He formerly worked for The Florida Channel, WTXL-TV, and before graduating interned with WFSU News. He is excited to return to the newsroom. In his spare time he enjoys watching sports, Netflix, outdoor activities and anything involving his daughter.