by Amy Keller
In 2009, Florida’s prison growth seemed to be out of control. The state’s inmate population had topped 100,000 for the first time and was projected to grow another 20% over the next five years. At that rate, corrections officials warned, they’d need to build 19 prisons at a cost of $2 billion.
Alarmed by the costs, business groups, including Florida TaxWatch, Associated Industries of Florida and the Florida Chamber began urging Florida’s tough-on-crime Legislature to embrace a different correctional philosophy. For all its tough sentencing, 88% of inmates now in Florida prisons will one day be released. Instead of spending money on more beds, they argued, Florida ought to invest in programs to cut the state’s recidivism rate: Nearly one of three inmates released is back behind bars within three years. Meanwhile, some offenders, including chronic substance abusers and other non-violent criminals, could be offered alternatives to jail time.
Four years later, reformers report mixed results. They point to the expansion of Florida’s civil citation program, which provides alternatives to prison for first-time, non-violent offenders. Wansley Walters, now secretary of the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, pioneered the program in Miami-Dade County when she directed juvenile services there. Between 1998 and 2008, juvenile arrests plummeted by 51% and re-arrests fell 80%, saving the county more than $20 million each year. The program was expanded statewide for juveniles in 2011, and an adult civil citation pilot program was launched last year in Leon County.
Another promising sign: The state’s recidivism rate has dropped by nearly 5% since 2009, when the Florida Department of Corrections designated its first transitional prison exclusively focused on preparing inmates for the transition back into community. Today, the state operates three correctional institutions dedicated to re-entry and plans to open a fourth in January. With $2.9 million from the Legislature, the newly built Gadsden Reentry Center will provide 432 prisoners everything from substance abuse treatment to vocational training, life skills and education.
In other facilities, volunteers help inmates with everything from studying for their GEDs to learning how to put together a resume or interview for a job. Chris Southerland, new deputy assistant secretary of re-entry at the Department of Corrections, says “once we started realizing these programs are important and they are changing people’s lives and this does affect the crime rate in the community, it just makes sense.”
Despite the successes, reformers have come up empty in their push for sentencing reform. Florida has some of the harshest punishments in the nation, particularly for drug-related offenses. Florida law defines drug “trafficking” as possession of a given weight of illegal drugs, for example, so illegal possession of 28 grams of a painkiller like hydrocodone — about 44 pills — triggers a mandatory minimum 25-year prison sentence.
Former Republican Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, who worked on the issue for six years and came close to getting reforms passed in 2012, says she believes some leaders are skittish about the political consequences of supporting sentencing reform. “I think intellectually, everybody believes in rehabilitation and second chances, but they never want to be perceived as soft on crime, and I think that has been a huge barrier.”
Reformers hope that other tough-on-crime states can provide some encouragement to change. Over the past several years, more than a dozen states, from North Dakota to South Carolina, have moved away from mandatory minimums and one-size-fits all sentencing.
Many reform advocates believe reforms recently passed in Georgia could serve as a blueprint for Florida. The reforms spearheaded by Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal aim to reserve costly prison beds for the most dangerous offenders and establishes diversion alternatives for low-level, non-violent offenders. To accomplish this, the law creates “degrees” of burglary, forgery and theft, with increased penalties assigned to the more serious crimes. A burglary of a residence, for instance, triggers a harsher penalty than the burglary of an unoccupied structure or building.
Georgia also raised the felony theft threshold from $500 to $1,500, increased the felony shoplifting threshold from $300 to $500 and revised its penalties for simple possession of drugs, with less severe penalties for those found with small amounts. Georgia judges are also now permitted to depart from mandatory minimum sentences in limited circumstances.
With the expected savings from lower prison populations, Georgia plans to expand its drug courts, veterans’ courts and mental health courts. The state is also putting a greater emphasis on community-based supervision programs and adding more probation and parole officers to help low-level offenders stay on the straight and narrow. The state is also issuing limited driving permits to defendants and participants in drug court or mental health court programs, which will allow them to get to school or work as long as they are meeting the program’s requirements.
As Florida lawmakers return to Tallahassee for committee meetings in September, the Project on Accountable Justice, a new bipartisan think tank focused on criminal justice reform, plans to hold a seminar comparing and contrasting Florida’s criminal justice system to Georgia’s.
The group’s new chairman, Allison Defoor, a former sheriff, prosecutor and judge who’s become a prison reform advocate, says the organization aims to help Florida policy-makers have a more informed debate over corrections reform by providing them data and information about what’s working, or not working, elsewhere.
“What we hope to do,” he says, “is to let everybody be able to find consensus in the things we can agree on. Data don’t have opinions. Data just are, and that’s where we hope to be able to make a stand and people can rally around it.”