May 29, 2020

What you need to know about Florida's prisons

Amy Martinez | 2/26/2020

Some lawmakers want to cut Florida’s time-served requirement to 65% for non-violent offenders who demonstrate good behavior in prison. State Sen. Jeff Brandes, chair of the state Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice, argues that Florida’s prison system is at a breaking point: Either the state dramatically increases funding to keep pace with prison costs, taking away from other budget priorities, or it scales back long prison sentences and lowers costs.

Reducing the threshold from 85% to 65%, as other states have done, would save an estimated $860 million over five years without jeopardizing public safety, he says. Nearly half of prisoners who were sentenced to prison in 2016 had no current or prior violent offenses, according to a 2017 state-commissioned report by the Crime and Justice Institute, a non-profit research group based in Boston.

“The longer you house low-level, non-violent offenders with hardened criminals, the more likely they are to pick up other bad habits,” Brandes says.

At least two groups — the state’s sheriffs and prosecutors associations — oppose a lower time-served threshold, saying it would reverse the downward trend in crime rates.

Mandatory Minimums

In response to the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s, the Legislature implemented a slew of mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug crimes.

The policies and their impact on communities with high incarceration rates have been deeply controversial. Criminal defense attorneys argue that mandatory minimums tie judges’ hands and prevent them from taking into account mitigating circumstances, such as a defendant’s suitability for treatment alternatives. Proponents argue that they eliminate the sympathy factor for defendants and make society safer.

In the wake of the opioid crisis, mandatory minimums have drawn renewed scrutiny. The James Madison Institute, a conservative think tank in Tallahassee, estimates that imprisoning low-level drug offenders costs Florida taxpayers more than $100 million a year. Researchers note that the vast majority of prisoners serving time for opioid trafficking are non-violent, first-time offenders.

“Prison is a horrible place that deeply traumatizes people and should be used as a last resort,” says state Sen. Jeff Brandes. “Sentences that are too long are just as wrong as sentences that are too short.”

  • Under Florida sentencing guidelines, someone arrested with seven to 14 grams of oxycodone faces a mandatory minimum of three years in prison. Possessing 14 to 25 grams of oxycodone has a seven-year mandatory minimum sentence, and possessing 25 to 100 grams has a mandatory minimum of 15 years.
  • More than 17,000 of 27,916 prisoners who entered the state prison system in 2018 had a substance-abuse problem, according to the Florida Department of Corrections.

 

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