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Gain time reform passes out of Senate Criminal Justice Committee

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Bill emphasizes rehabilitative credits

Sen. Keith Perry

Sen. Keith Perry

A bill that would allow inmates to serve as little as 65% of their sentences if they complete rehabilitation programs and training while in prison has passed the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.

SB 1032, by Sen. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, is one of several criminal justice bills proposed this year. Perry explained to the committee that currently the Department of Corrections can award gain time to shortened sentences for good behavior or a meritorious action, and incentive gain time for completing training programs or other positive activities.

The committee was meeting March 2, the opening day of the scheduled 60-day annual session.

Perry’s bill increases the gain time that can be awarded, which varies by type of crime and when the crime was committed. While good behavior and meritorious gain time could be used to reduce a sentence to 85% of its original length — the maximum now allowed by law — rehabilitative gain time could be used to reduce the sentence to 65%. Qualifying programs would include getting a GED, taking life skills, behavioral modification, mental health, drug treatment, reentry, vocational training, or similar courses.

The bill also changes the goal in the Criminal Punishment Code from incarceration to punishment and rehabilitation, with the latter ensuring the individual can successfully return to the community.

Perry acknowledged the bill is controversial.

“I call this bill my bipolar bill because I can argue both sides of it,” he said. “It’s not about having people punished — people commit crimes, there needs to be punishment.”

Rather, the bill acknowledges that most people who go to state prison will eventually get out.

“The question is are they better off or worse off when they get released. The answer is they are overwhelmingly worse off,” Perry said.

Having better trained, better educated prisoners can reduce the three-year recidivism rate, which is now more than 50%, he said, adding “The driver [for the bill] is public safety; what are we going to do to keep our streets safe.”

The bill passed 7-1, although some senators said they may oppose it later depending on how it evolves in other committees and on the Senate floor.

“We’re headed in the right direction, but we’re not quite there yet,” said Sen. George Gainer, R-Panama City. “What I’m going to do is go ahead and vote for this bill. I know Sen. Perry is dedicated to getting this done.”

Committee Chair Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Miami, said he was supporting the bill but thought some issues would need to be addressed, including making sure victims understand that perpetrators could be serving as little as 65% of their sentences. And Pizzo, a former assistant state attorney, said prosecutors might offset increased gain time by offering longer sentences in plea bargain deals.

He also said the enhanced gain time should not be available to all types of inmates.

“I have very little sympathy for people who harm children. I’m not looking to help them. Or people that continue with a pattern of crime that is predatory,” Pizzo said.

He also agreed with Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, who said, “The body of evidence doesn’t support Florida’s 85% rule….

“We should lean toward grace, we should lean toward mercy, we should lean toward recognizing that character is not static and people change,” Brandes said.

Perry said he’s willing to keep modifying the bill, including the 65% standard. But he said the necessary post-prison behavior has to be taught while inmates are still in prison.

“We owe it to the people of the state of Florida to do everything we can to create a safer environment for them,” he said. “The way we’re going now with the Department of Corrections, we are not doing that. We are creating a system where more than half those people are back in trouble within three years. That means we have victims of crime.”

Several people attended the meeting to voice their support for the bill, but waived their speaking time.

“Expanding rehabilitation credits will increase public safety, reduce recidivism, and save taxpayer dollars,” said Florida ACLU Legislative Director Kara Gross in a statement released after the meeting. “This one reform is estimated to save the state close to $1 billion and will help ensure that incarcerated individuals have the tools they need to successfully reintegrate into their communities. When incarcerated individuals participate in educational and vocational training and other productive activities, everyone benefits. In order to safely address our prison and budget crisis, we need more rehabilitation in prisons, not more taxpayer dollars spent on prisons.”

The bill next goes to the Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice on April 8. It also has been referred to the Appropriations Committee.

The House has two related bills, HB 235 on rehabilitation and HB 1215 on penalties for nonviolent offences. Both have been assigned the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Subcommittee, the Justice Appropriations Subcommittee, and the Judiciary Committee. Neither has been heard in committee.

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