Republicans in the Florida House won’t act on prison reform, and that makes all of us less safe | Editorial

Though the Florida Senate has approved prison reform measures, lawmakers in the House have failed to address it.
Though the Florida Senate has approved prison reform measures, lawmakers in the House have failed to address it. Getty Images

Again, violence in Florida’s prisons that has left inmates battered, bloodied, paralyzed — or dead — has gotten lawmakers’ attention. But will irresponsible Republicans in the Florida House refuse to take even the first steps to eliminate the sources of such brutality — again?

Mark Inch, secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections, presented his proposed budget on Wednesday to the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice. Inch’s requests make clear what’s wrong:

- $60.6 million in funding for pay raises to attract and retain corrections officers.

- $29 million for a pilot program that would let prison guards at about a third of the facilities work a 8.5-hour day, instead of a bone-wearying 12 hours.

- $9 million for repair and maintenance of the state’s prison facilities. And this doesn’t even include installing air-conditioning, something private prisons in Florida have.

Inch’s presentation wasn’t just a dry recitation of digits and dollars. He let some of DOC’s beleaguered prison leaders speak for themselves. Inch had asked his captains to describe their mental state. Wednesday, he read their written responses aloud. Senate lawmakers heard things like, “I drink until I black out.” “I have anger issues.” “I have suicidal thoughts.”

All this from a senior staff in pain.

Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes, of Pinellas County, has taken the lead in prison reform in the state. Though he has a bipartisan group of colleagues in the Senate who are in step with his views, the House remains recalcitrant.

“There have been more murders this year than all of last year in the prisons,” Brandes told the Editorial Board. “Inmate violence is up, contraband is up — deaths with Fentanyl, a beating in Lake County. This speaks to DOC having too many inmates and not enough guards.

It doesn’t help that state-run prisons must take more challenging inmates, with medical complications and discipline issues. Private prisons don’t take them. Of the more than 50 prisons in Florida, only about seven are privately run. But they highlight the gross disparities between the two.

In addition to cool air and inmate who are better behaved, Florida’s private prisons offer inmates educational opportunities, so that they have a leg up when they are released, reducing the chances that they will offend again and return to prison.

We support Brandes’ push for prison reform. Anyone with an ounce of common sense should, too.

Here’s what true reform would look like:

- Release inmates convicted of nonviolent crimes after they have successfully served 65 percent of their sentence, instead of the current 85 percent. Brandes says this would save $200 million a year. It could make guards’ meager starting salaries competitive with jobs in sheriffs’ offices and county jails for which they leave. Higher salaries also mean DOC can raise the caliber of guards hired and return them to working eight-hour days, while reducing the prison population more quickly. “No other state says you must serve 85 percent of the sentence, “ Brandes said. “There’s no mechanism of incentives for people to behave.”

- Florida has no parole system for most inmates upon release. That means they aren’t monitored, there’s no one to report to. The chance of reoffending goes up.

- Introduce rehabilitation and reentry services, including vo-tech classes. Right now, Brandes said, “They leave illiterate.”

In the upcoming legislative session, Brandes says he also will push for more front-end diversion initiatives, including citations instead of arrests, drug courts, veterans courts and mental health courts. Miami-Dade and Broward counties already are on the leading edge with such programs.

For the sake of public safety, his Republican colleagues in the House should get on board. Otherwise, they will have to explain why they are saying No, in favor of continued violence behind prison walls; never-ending turnover among guards; guards who illegally supplement their low pay by smuggling in contraband; and, with no rehabilitation programs, warehousing of inmates while squandering millions in taxpayers’ dollars.