Gov. Ron DeSantis was among those who attended the National Governors Association breakfast at the White House Monday morning and heard remarks from President Donald Trump on a variety of issues, including one that is on the agenda again for the Florida Legislature when it convenes next week — criminal justice reform.
The federal First Step Act was backed by the president and enacted by Congress in December. The act overturned the mandatory sentencing requirements that judges were required to follow in handing down sentences to those convicted of nonviolent federal drug-related crimes.
Florida was among the first states to enact mandatory sentencing guidelines more than 20 years ago when doing so was part of a get tough on crime agenda adopted by states to deal with rising crime rates and the increase in illegal drug activity.
The mandatory sentencing guidelines today are putting a tremendous financial strain on criminal justice systems in states like Florida. It’s a strain that opponents claim is taking resources away from programs designed to rehabilitate prisoners for their eventual return to society.
It’s an issue that has won the support of groups from all parts of the political spectrum — conservatives and liberals.
“Right now in the state of Florida, you have close to 100,000 people who are incarcerated.” said Mark Holden, general counsel for Koch Industries and is the chair of a group called Freedom Partners. The Koch Network has been key supporters of criminal justice reform in this country and Holden was recently in Tallahassee pushing a prison reform package in this year’s legislative session.
“We want to make sure they come out of prison better than they went in. We want them better, not bitter,” Holden insisted.
It’s estimated 85 percent of the inmates in Florida’s prison will be released in the next five years, many of them will recommit and end up back in prison.
Texas took the lead on criminal justice reform more than a decade ago. Holden says reform efforts there have been so successful that Texas has been able to close 8 prisons, while the state’s crime rate has dropped to 1960’s levels.
But some fear that support of repealing mandatory sentencing guidelines will give the impression that a person is soft on crime.
Not true says Matthew Charles, of Nashville, Tennessee. He was the first prisoner released as a result of the federal First Step Act. He had served for more than 20 years in federal prison after being convicted on crack cocaine charges and received a mandatory sentence.
“It’s not saying your soft on crime. It’s being smart on crime,” said Charles. “Those people, unless they have a life sentence or a death sentence, are going to be released back into society.”
Charles says the focus of a criminal reform strategy needs to include rehabilitative services.
State Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg is once again carrying the torch for criminal justice reform in Florida as he has in recent years. It’s called the Florida First Step Act.
“As somebody who believes that over-incarcerating is just as unjust as under-incarceration and that Florida’s system, today, doesn’t allow judges to be judges .. they don’t actually go through the sentencing process and try to determine if the sentence fits the crime, ” said Brandes. “The discretion was taken away from them by the Legislature.”
Florida’s First Step Act would also work to keep prisoners housed at facilities closer to their home areas allowing for more interaction with their families, which Brandes says has been to shown to have a positive effect on an inmate’s rehabilitation.
“As anything in Tallahassee, it takes you beating the drum for many years,” Brandes said when asked about the chances of the reform package passing this year.
“The current pathway for criminal justice system is unsustainable. We simply can’t afford 96,000 inmates as we have in the past,” Brandes insisted. “Health care costs (of inmates) are eating up the budget.”
The St. Petersburg Republican says Florida’s prison system is straining under its own weight. He says too many facilities with populations of 1,500 inmates are being limited to one teacher whose job it is to provide educational opportunities to inmates as part of their rehabilitation.
A group of wardens testified before the Senate Criminal Justice last week about the challenges they face because of the financial strain being placed on the current system.
Brandes says some prisons are operating with a workforce that falls 20 percent below the number of guards and staff that it normally takes to operate a prison, creating safety risks for both the inmates and staff.
Supporters of criminal justice reform say it’s not only a financial issue for states like Florida. They say it’s also a moral issue.
“We don’t believe anyone should be judged forever by their worst day,” Holden said.
“Man should never place a period where God has placed a comma,” he added.. “People can transform themselves. People can change their lives if they have the will to do so and we give them the abilities to do so
With a new governor and legislative leaders in power it remains to be seen whether this will be the year Florida will remove the period and replace it with a comma.