Florida Seen as ‘One Federal Judge Away from Losing Control’ of Its Prison System
There’s been a lot of talk the last few years in Tallahassee, Florida, about criminal justice reform, but little substantive action with a bevy of bills that would revise sentencing guidelines, address substance abuse and boost spending for diversion and transition programs stalling on the brink of adoption.
With the U.S. Senate passing the First Step Act — the most sweeping federal criminal justice reform package adopted in decades — Tuesday night in an 87-12 vote, the time for talk by the Florida Legislature is over, warns Senate Appropriations Chairman Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg.
“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.”
“Tough on crime” laws imposed in the 1990s have increased Florida’s prison population by 29 percent in two decades. The state — with 96,313 inmates on July 1 — has the nation’s third-largest prison population.
State corrections spending has increased correspondingly, up 60 percent in a decade, from $1.5 billion to $2.4 billion this year.
During a Dec. 12 pre-session primer before the Senate Appropriations Criminal/Civil Justice Subcommittee, the DOC submitted a preliminary budget request seeking $330 million in “new” recurring funds to sustain its existing operations.
“That is three times the new money we had last year to spend for the entire budget, for everything,” Brandes said, referring to the $102 million in increased spending allocated last year for the DOC, Department of Juvenile Justice, State Attorneys, Public Defenders and the Courts. “This is just for the (DOC’s) silo.”
Nearly all of DOC’s $330 million increase is for inmate health care and staff recruitment/retention, according to the request.
In a Friday visit to Charlotte Correctional Facility, Brandes said he saw little evidence that taxpayers will ever see any return on their ever-increasing investment in providing the services and programs necessary for the vast number of inmates who will eventually return to the streets.
“Take a guess how many teachers they have? One. They have one teacher for 1,200 inmates,” he said, adding the prison has “one chaplain, who half the time is the librarian” and cannot get the $15,000 it needs to fix its kitchen freezer’s door.
CCF is not the exception but the norm, Brandes said. Many of the state’s 143 corrections facilities, including 43 penitentiaries, 33 work camps, 15 “annexes,” 20 work release centers and six road prisons/forestry camps “were built under (Gov.) Ruben Askew” in the 1970s, he said.
The DOC is “easy pickings” when it comes to diverting resources, Brandes said. “The wardens get hand-me-downs from the hand-me-down vehicles” from other state agencies.
Also, the DOC cannot retain corrections officers, who it pays to train at the state’s law enforcement academy, the same as sheriff’s deputies and police officers
“The average corrections officer has two years’ experience, sergeants three to four, captains five to six,” Brandes said, noting many eventually get hired by sheriffs as deputies for a “$6,000 to $10,000” boost in salary.
It’s a good deal for sheriff’s departments and police agencies because the DOC paid for the training, but a bad deal for the corrections department and taxpayers, he said.
Virtually all the prisons have undermanned medical staffs. “Much of the money is going for healthcare to older inmates,” Brandes said. Yet the DOC is in danger of not meeting federal guidelines for mental health, Hepatitis C and ADA compliance, among other standards of care requirements. CCF’s medical staff “didn’t have the money to do hernia surgeries.”
Because of sustained decreases in crime rates over the last decade, the DOC is “seeing the intake of inmates leveling off, but the lengths of sentences are going up,” Brandes said.
The number of prison inmates per 100,000 Florida residents dipped to 461.9 in 2017 after peaking at 543.7 in 2009. As of July 1, there were 96,313 inmates in state prisons, down from 100,050 in 2014.
“While in the short term we have a money problem, without sentencing reform, diversion options and a commitment to education and transition, we will soon find a DOC in crisis,” Brandes said.
During the in the 2019 legislative session, Brandes wants to address more than 100 mandatory minimums sentencing requirements in state law as one tactic to keep drug offenders, in particular, out of prison and reduce costs to taxpayers.
Brandes’ aim is to trim the prison population by about 10,000, to 86,000, through more diversion programs like drug courts, beefing up transition programs such as halfway houses, and finding alternatives to incarceration and probation.
An October study by Urban Institute concluded that Florida could reduce its prison population by 3 percent — 2,700 fewer inmates — by 2025 merely by reclassifying drug possession as a misdemeanor rather than, in many cases, a felony.
Brandes said he is spearheading a “coalition by the second week of January and we are going to be educating the Senate.” That education will include a “road trip — it won’t be just one facility, but many. I want people to see what I am seeing.”
He said “wardens want to do more, but they don’t have the” support of the Legislature, noting he hopes to convince “wardens to come to Tallahassee and meet with the Legislature as an organized group.”
“I don’t know if that has ever happened,” Brandes said.
He has “grave concerns” that if lawmakers don’t address these deficiencies now, the federal courts will do so by consent order in response to lawsuits.
“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.”
Citing “Stein’s Law,” Brandes added, ”’If something cannot be sustained, it will stop.’ I am raising the flag — the Department of Corrections is on an unsustainable path.”
John Haughey is a Watchdog.org contributor.
A version of this article previously appeared on the Watchdog.org website under the headline, “Florida seen as ‘one federal judge away from losing control’ of its prison system.”
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