TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Over the last several months the ABC Action News I-Team has uncovered crippling flaws within the state’s prison system leading to a “Crisis in Corrections”.
The problems have ranged from severe staffing shortages forcing prison shutdowns, to a lack of medical care and have prompted multi-million dollar lawsuits. State leaders have warned an emergency release of inmates threatens the safety of local communities.
The Florida legislature is looking at tackling some of these challenges in this year’s session. With just three weeks left, the I-Team took a look at where things stand on key bills that could help alleviate this crisis.
The Criminal Rehabilitation Act
A proposed law that would reduce the amount of time Florida inmates have to serve appears to be going nowhere this legislative session. The criminal rehabilitation act was introduced in January, but there has not been any committee hearing on it.
The bill calls for a reduction in sentences for non-violent offenders who show good behavior and participate in rehabilitation activities. The proposal would reduce the minimum amount of time that prisoners must serve from 85 percent to 65 percent.
Florida currently has one of the strictest requirements in the country when it comes to serving prison sentences. The proposed reduction would put Florida on par with other so-called “law-and-order” states like Texas, Georgia, and Tennessee.
“Whatever amount under the 85, to get that time shortened would be a miracle to me,” said prison reform advocate Mary Kuntz.
Her son Tyler is scheduled to be released in 2032 after serving 17 years of a 20-year sentence. He was convicted of attempted lewd and lascivious molestation in 2015.
“If we could get a 65 percent passed, Tyler would come home 5 ½ years early. Five and a half years is a lot of time, especially when you get to be our age,” Kuntz said.
State senator Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg said releasing non-violent inmates early would help the struggling department of corrections address staffing shortages, prison overcrowding, and overtime issues.
“Moving from 85 to 65 percent for non-violent offenders would allow them to have additional gain time and would save the state billions of dollars per decade,” Brandes said.
Opponents worry the measure would put criminals back on the street to further victimize the public.
Kuntz believes a change in sentencing would allow her son to go from being a burden on taxpayers to a contributing member of society.
“He has already been promised his job back. He had a vehicle. He has a place to live. So he has all those things waiting for him. So to me, it’s a no-brainer. Get Tyler out. Get him home,” Kuntz said.
Another burden on taxpayers that’s drawing attention is the high-cost care for sick and elderly inmates. A 2019 audit of healthcare in the Department of Corrections found the state’s elderly inmate population grew by 77 percent over the last 10 years. Older prisoners cost the state about three times as much, largely due to healthcare costs.
“We believe — not me — but some of us believe you deserve to just go ahead and die there. Why should we let you out?” Democratic State Rep. Dianne Hart, of Tampa, told the I-Team. “But when you see these numbers, and the overcrowding, and people sleeping on floors, and people sleeping on top of each other and just — it’s ridiculous. Then you’re now trying to figure out, okay, so what do we do?”
Lisa Lopez, whose 66-year-old fiancé is in prison, said it was during a recent visit that she witnessed staff bring out an elderly man on a stretcher.
“Why are we wasting all those taxpayer dollars on someone that can’t even get up from his bed? How is he a threat to society?” Lopez said.
Democratic State Rep. Andrew Learned, of Brandon, filed an appropriations bill to fund a study on the state’s conditional medical release program. So far, he said the Senate has included the study in its proposed budget.
At Zephyrhills Correctional Institution, he said, “We have essentially a nursing home in that prison. Right now. And most of these folks are bedridden. They’re no threats to society. And I have no idea what each individual person on that floor did, but surely there has to be a more creative way we can look at that problem and say, how can we save the taxpayer of Florida a couple bucks?”
As of June 2021, the FDC reports 66 percent of elderly prisoners are in for violent crimes.
Build more prisons, hospitals
Rather than focus on a plan to release inmates, the Senate wants $1.7 billion to build two new 4,500-bed state prisons and two 250-bed hospitals for another $400 million, to care for the aging population.
Republican State Sen. Kelli Stargel, of Lakeland, said, “These efficient and state-of-the-art facilities will be safer for both officers and inmates and will allow us to close older, less efficient facilities and save on maintenance and repair dollars.
Rep. Hart’s bill on parole eligibility is finding support, making its way through House committees.
The bill would require the Florida Commission on Offender Review (FCOR) to consider an inmate's achievements while in prison, his or her disciplinary report, and risks to the public in order to allow some inmates to serve the remainder of their sentences in the community under strict supervision.
The bill would also create a long-term program to prepare eligible inmates for reintegration into the community.
Inmate Welfare Trust Fund
There’s also a push from the House to nearly triple how much money stays in the Inmate Welfare Trust Fund, from $2.5 million to $7 million, Rep. Learned told the I-Team.
This would increase programming for inmates, rather than divert the money collected in prisons back to the state’s general fund.
“Our prisoners are spending upwards of $30-$40 million a year on their telephone bills inside the prison, that’s a profit to the state, and just reinvesting those dollars back into programs for our inmates to help them decrease recidivism and get training while they’re in the system,” Learned said.
As advocates hope for change, there’s still a long way to go on prison reform in a state that has long ignored the mounting warning signs of a crisis on corrections.
If you have a story you’d like the I-Team to investigate, email us at email@example.com