February 5, 2020

Two Bills Would Help Bring Much-Needed Reform to Florida's Criminal Justice System

The 2020 legislative session is underway and two major criminal justice bills — Senate Bill (SB) 194 and SB 394 — have been introduced in an effort to curb recidivism and the length of time that inmates serve. Florida has maintained a long-standing history of mass incarceration, which includes refusing “time for good behavior” and failing to invest in workforce development laws that are beneficial to those who are incarcerated. Florida’s adherence to these policies has left formerly incarcerated individuals in a vulnerable spot upon release from prison. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, Florida’s incarceration rate is 833 per 100,000 people.

SB 194 focuses on ensuring that incarcerated individuals enrolled in classes coordinated by the Department of Corrections (DOC) received credit toward professional licensure. The bill’s sponsor, State Senator Annette Taddeo (D-Miami), maintains that it addresses the issue of recidivism in Florida by compelling the DOC to ensure prisoners are closer to employment after incarceration. Notably, recidivism, the rate at which formerly incarcerated individuals return to jail within a three or five year period, remains at 24.7 percent in Florida as of 2015.

Various studies have found a correlation between job prospects and the rate of recidivism in the United States. For example, a study by America Works and the Manhattan Institute found that people who have been released from prison are less likely to return if they can find employment. SB 194 would reduce the period of time it takes for the formerly incarcerated to receive professional licensure once released from prison.

SB 394 aims to amend Florida’s laws around "gain time." Gain time, crediting an incarcerated individual’s participation in constructive programming while incarcerated, has been a part of prison culture in Florida since 1889. Traditionally, an incarcerated individual in Florida has been required to serve at least 85 percent of their prison sentence before being eligible for release. The latter has contributed to a range of issues, such as overcrowding and cuts in rehabilitation programs. Incarcerated individuals across the country have relied on favorable gain time laws, and job placement programs to anchor their transition away from incarceration. The Prison Policy Initiative found that Wyoming has the most favorable laws, in part because it allows people to work off up to 40 percent of their sentence.

Both of these bills provide substantive and effective criminal justice reform provisions. They would reduce the costs associated with running Florida’s prison system, which would in turn save taxpayer dollars, and provide those who are incarcerated the opportunity to work once they are released. The average annual cost for housing an inmate in Florida has increased every year for the past five years.

The 2018 Florida Recidivism Report states that “recidivism rates are certainly affected by factors outside the influence of the Department of Corrections, such as unemployment, crime rates, and local criminal justice issues, including jail bed availability and gang activity.” However, members of both political parties in Florida acknowledge that there is room to change how the DOC affects job prospects of the incarcerated to positively impact recidivism rates. The Legislature should prioritize these bills and pass them this session, which would give way to great fiscal savings for the state and better rehabilitation for those in prison.

Oliver Telusma is an intern with Florida Policy Institute. He is a spoken word poet, public speaker, and Juris Doctorate Candidate at the Florida A&M University College of Law in Orlando, Florida. He earned his B.A. in Political Science from the University of Florida in 2018.

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