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Senate committee moves criminal justice reform bills

Senior Editor News in Photos

Sen. Jeff BrandesThe Senate Criminal Justice Committee voted unanimously December 10 to approve a series of measures designed to lower Florida’s prison population and promote rehabilitation.

One measure, SB 574, would create a conditional aging release program for felons 70 and older who have served at least 10 years of their sentences and not been convicted of murder, terrorism, or sex crimes.

“It’s one of the most amazing things, every time I tour a facility to see the number of inmates who are on walkers or in wheelchairs,” said the bill’s prime sponsor, Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg.

The Florida Department of Corrections estimates that nearly 2,000 of the state’s 100,000 inmates would meet the age requirement, with only 168 of them eligible for the program.

“But we believe hundreds more will come online over the next few years,” Brandes said. “This would provide a pathway for them to spend their remaining years at home.”

Seventeen states and the District of Columbia have similar programs for aging inmates, Brandes said.

Rep. Bobby DuBose, D-Ft. Lauderdale, is sponsoring similar legislation in the House, but HB 837 has yet to be referred to committees.

Sen. Randolph Bracy, D-Orlando, added an amendment to another Brandes bill that would allow inmates to be released after serving 65 percent of their sentences if they exhibit good behavior and participate in rehabilitation programs.

Florida law requires inmates to serve 85 percent of their sentences.

“This amendment allows non-violent offenders to earn more incentive gain time for good behavior, diligent work, educational attainment, and other constructive programming,” Bracy said.

Rep. Dianne Hart, D-Tampa, is sponsoring a gain-time measure in the House. HB 189 has yet to be heard by a committee.

Hart appeared in the Senate committee room to support Bracy’s amendment.

“Not only do we get people to go home earlier, we also get to save over $800 million over a five-year period,” Hart said. “I think it’s critically important that we put those dollars back into our system, to educate people to prepare them to go home.”

Besides the aging inmate bill, the committee unanimously approved four other Brandes measures:

SB 550 and SB 552 would expand the category of non-violent offenses that are eligible for non-state prison sanctions and mandatory diversion programs.

SB 554 would create two new circumstances for mitigating a sentence under the Criminal Punishment Code, including that the defendant requires specialized treatment for substance abuse or addiction, a mental disorder, or a physical disability.

SB 572 would authorize the Department of Corrections to allow an inmate to participate in a supervised community release program up to 365 days before an inmate’s tentative release date as an extension of the inmate’s confinement.

SB 572 would apply only to inmates serving more than two-year sentences. It would allow probation officers to arrest inmates on supervised release if there are “reasonable grounds” to believe they violated the terms of their supervision, according to a staff analysis.

Rehabilitation and reentry programs are more “meaningful than $50 and a bus pass,” Brandes said.

Brandes is continuing to push reforms for the 2020 session that begins next month after the House rejected many of his initiatives last session.

“I’m encouraged by the direction. I’m encouraged to see this becoming a bi-partisan issue that is beginning to reach across chambers,” Brandes said.

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