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Gain time reform measure clears Senate panel

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Sen. Keith Perry

Sen. Keith Perry

A Senate panel has approved a measure that would allow qualified inmates to earn early release after serving 65% of their sentences, avoiding the current 85% mandate.

The Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice voted 7-0 on April 8 to approve SB 1032 by Chair Keith Perry, R-Gainesville. A companion, HB 235 by Rep. Dianne Hart, D-Tampa, has yet to be heard.

The measure would allow qualified prisoners to shave 10 days off each month of their sentences for good behavior and earn rehabilitation credits that would vary based on the date and severity of their offense.

Perry said he was uncomfortable lifting the 85% mandate, but he noted that inmates who don’t participate in rehabilitation programs have a 50% recidivism rate.

“And that means you and I will someday be a victim of crime,” he said. “The purpose of this bill is not to be soft on crime…the purpose of this bill is public safety.”

The measure would also give corrections officers in dangerously understaffed prisons a powerful tool to control inmate behavior, Perry said.

Under the bill, prisoners would have the ability to shave 60 days off of their sentences for completing each of a host of rehabilitation programs, including a high-school equivalency diploma, college degree, vocational certificate, or a drug and alcohol treatment program.

The measure would also make ex-offenders eligible to apply for professional licenses two years after their convictions instead of the current five. The provision would apply to would-be barbers, cosmetologists, contractors, and others.

According to a staff analysis, the measure could reduce the need for more than 8,000 prison beds and reduce prison costs by nearly $550 million over the next five years.

Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Miami and a former prosecutor, praised Perry for sponsoring a bill that is opposed by the Florida Sheriff’s Association and House Republican leaders.

“Chair Perry, you’re a good dude,” Pizzo said. “This is not an easy bill.”

Pizzo said he was concerned that if the measure ever became law, prosecutors would demand harsher sentences in plea negotiations. Regardless, Pizzo said he was a strong supporter.

“It’s about public safety, not just about punishment,” he said.

The Florida Campaign for Criminal Justice Reform is an ardent supporter. The coalition includes the Florida Public Defender Association, the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the Florida Justice Association, the ACLU, the Catholic Church, and others.

Several people who identified themselves as parents of inmates testified for the bill, one of them tearfully.

A Panama City woman said the measure would allow her son, who is serving a 20-year sentence for a first-time offense, to be released in 2025 instead of 2028.

“In one sense, I’m lucky, because my son will come home someday,” she said. “Do you want him to be better when he comes home, or worse?”

Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala and a former Criminal Justice Committee chair when he served in the House, said he was willing to take a chance on rehabilitation.

But he warned that lawmakers would undo the reforms if recidivism rates don’t fall.

“Today is a day of redemption for me, I want to give them that chance,” he said. “The future of this, whether it works, is how they respond.”

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