For decades, Florida’s prison population has far outpaced the state’s population growth. But that appears to be changing.
Office of Economic and Demographic Research officials meeting at the state Capitol last week predicted an increase of about 1,000 inmates over the next six years in Florida’s prison population, which currently stands at 99,119.
That roughly 1 percent increase compares with an expected jump of 1.3 million state residents, about 6.5 percent.
But the predicted increase in the prison population isn’t a result of more crime.
“There has been a recent shift in sentence length, where there are a greater proportion of new (prison) commitments coming in with longer sentences,” Matthew Hasbrouck, a state economist, said in an email.
Prison sentences average about 63 months, or 5.25 years, or nearly one year longer on average than a decade ago.
The state economists and criminal justice experts made it abundantly clear that Florida is getting safer.
Total index offenses for the past year, which include violent and non-violent crimes, dropped for the seventh year in a row and are lower than any year since 1978. Arrests were also down nearly 11 percent, from 866,919 in 2014 to 773,037 in 2015.
The OEDR meeting came on the heels of the 2015 Annual Uniform Crime Report released in June. It showed another decline in Florida’s annual crime rate, marking a 45-year low.
Republican Gov. Rick Scott was quick to tout the report’s findings, along with $4.9 billion in public safety funding.
“Florida’s crime rate continues to drop thanks to the hard work and dedication of our brave law enforcement officers,” Scott said.
Florida’s declining crime rate mirrors a long-term national trend.
Exact causes are difficult to nail down, but one reform the OEDR officials mentioned was the easing of the Department of Corrections’ “zero tolerance” policy.
Instituted in 2003, probation officers were required to report all technical violations for violent offenders, such as being late to an appointment or curfew. The result was many more arrests and subsequent prison terms.
DOC modified the policy in 2006, allowing probation officers to use their discretion before reporting minor violations.
Criminal justice reform advocates assert more needs to be done to bring Florida’s prison population in-line with the lower crime rate, such as improving inmate jobs programs and reforming or eliminating mandatory minimum sentences.
Photo credit: Sean Hobson via Flickr.
William Patrick is Watchdog.org’s Florida reporter. His work has been featured on Fox News and the Drudge Report, among other national sites. He’s also been cited and reposted by numerous statewide news organizations.