A group of bipartisan Florida lawmakers hope a flurry of targeted sentencing- and rehabilitation-focused reforms could begin to reduce the state’s massive prison population, relieving some pressure on the corrections department that its own leadership has repeatedly described as close to a crisis point, reports the Orlando Sentinel. The proposed reform bills would create new options to release elderly and sick inmates, increase incentives for prisoners to complete educational and other self-improvement programs and provide opportunities to retroactively reconsider and change some long sentences. The COVID-19 pandemic has only increased challenges for the Florida Department of Corrections (FDC), with FDC Secretary Mark Inch recently alerting lawmakers that more than half of the state’s prisons were understaffed to the point of emergency, and that the agency could not withstand more budget cuts.
At least two more inmate deaths linked to COVID-19 were reported this month, bringing the total to 210, the second highest in the country, and new cases among staff and inmates continue to rise. Two of the bills proposed this session would give FDC officials more autonomy to release inmates before the completion of their sentence, under certain circumstances. Another bill would create a new elderly release program and expand medical release options, under the complete authority of FDC, to account for the growing number of aging inmates, as well as those with terminal or incapacitating illnesses. Another bill would change the minimum amount of time served on a criminal sentence for those eligible to earn time off for good behavior, lowering it to 65 percent instead of 85 percent. According to legislative analysis, such a change would save the state almost $800 million over the next six years.