When the U.S. Senate passed a criminal justice reform package Tuesday night it marked the beginning of what could be an end to an era that emphasized a get tough approach on crime. But, while Congress moves on reforming its system, Florida continues to work on reforming its own..
Among the changes included in the federal First Step Act would be the expansion of job training and other programs aimed at reducing recidivism rates among federal prisoners. The reform package would also expand early-release programs. New mandatory minimum sentences would be established designed to ensure that nonviolent drug offenders are not subjected to stricter penalties intended to punish more violent criminals.
The House is expected to adopt the measure by the end of the week and has the support of President Donald Trump.
Once it becomes law, thousands of inmates in the federal prison system will immediately be eligible for sentencing reductions and expanded early-release programs.
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi is one of 38 attorneys general who have formed a coalition urging Congress to pass the reforms. The group sent a letter to Congress on Thursday urging passage of the measure.
“This legislation provides additional tools and flexibility to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, better equipping our correctional system to ensure that people coming back into our communities are prepared to do so as responsible citizens who do not pose a risk to our communities,” the attorneys general wrote in the letter to Congress.
“I am proud to co-sponsor this letter supporting a true bipartisan compromise concerning much needed prison reform in our country. The First Step Act will keep so many individuals from returning to prison and help them lead productive lives,” said Bondi.
“I think you’re seeing bold, bold decisions being made on both sides,” Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, said earlier this year. Brandes chairs the Senate budget subcommittee on criminal justice. “But I think what’s encouraging is you’re seeing the left and the right come together on an issue that really does affect every one of our Floridians and come up with decisions that ultimately lead to better outcomes.”
But Brandes is concerned Florida isn’t making those decisions quick enough. He told Watchdog.org earlier this week that he fears a federal takeover of Florida’s criminal justice system could occur if the state doesn’t move faster on reforming the system.
“We are one federal judge away from losing control of our own [Department of Corrections],” he told Watchdog.org Monday. “A federal judge will have no problem spending the state’s money to fix this if the Legislature won’t.”
Florida’s prison population is just shy of housing 100,000 inmates on any given day. About a quarter of those inmates will recommit crimes once they are released and be returned to the prison system.
It costs the state more than $20,000 a year to house an inmate. As a result, the state Department of Corrections’ budget continues to grow. This year’s budget is just over $2.4 billion dollars and the department’s budget request for next year asks for an additional $330 million.
Brandes says the state must follow the federal government and enact major criminal justice reform and do it soon.
“The Legislature is at a pivotal time. We have a couple of years to make bold reforms before we lose control” to federal court rulings, he said. “The bottom line is that the Florida Legislature must enact bold reforms this session in order to address the structural failures caused by years of deferred action.”
Many aspects of the First Step Act are ideas that come from states that are also tackling criminal justice reform. The move to reform the system has the support of both conservatives and liberals who say the current criminal justice system in our country is very expensive and very ineffective.
“Although advocates may differ as to their motivations — political, social, economic, religious — they agree something needs to be done about criminal justice reform in America,” said Erik Luna, editor and project director of the initiative called the Reforming Criminal Justice Report.
The report is the product of more than 120 professors and researchers, including one from Florida State University, who have compiled their findings into the multi-volume report that was financed by the Charles Koch Institute.
It is intended to help state’s like Florida as they tackle criminal justice reform.
“Florida is a very conservative state. It’s a very big state,” said Vikrant Reddy, who serves as a senior research fellow at the institute. “So, when Florida moves on criminal justice reform, people across the country take it very, very seriously. People will say, ‘Gosh, look at what Florida did. If Florida was able to do this then we can do it also.’”