George Gibbs Center for Economic Prosperity

Fr⁠i⁠day Ed⁠i⁠⁠t⁠or⁠i⁠al: Leg⁠i⁠sla⁠t⁠ure drops ball on pr⁠i⁠son reform

By: Guest Author / 2017

How bad does this state’s prison system have to get before the Florida Legislature takes stabs at reform?

Prisons here are failing miserably. Yet legislators during this past session failed to pass a common-sense bill that would have established a task force to explore the problems within the system.

“What is it about Florida and legislative leaders around the state that gives them the justification to do nothing?” said Greg Newburn, state policy director for Florida’s Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

Typically, legislators are afraid of being accused of being soft on crime.

Instead, the legislators are being soft on spending. The state is spending $2.4 billion this fiscal year on its Department of Corrections.

Many Floridians’ lives are deeply affected by having their family members incarcerated. In fact, 1 in 14 American children has a parent in prison. For black children, that’s 1 in 9, a fact that disrupts the family and child.

For Duval residents, the stakes are even higher.

This county now has more people in Florida’s prisons than any of the 67 counties in the state — even more than the much more populous Miami-Dade County with 2.5 times more people.

Duval County‘s prison numbers have risen a whopping 35 percent since 2007, a time when most other counties posted decreases. This can be attributed largely to a “take more prisoners” approach of former State Attorney Angela Corey.

Violence in the system has been growing as overworked, undertrained and underpaid guards deal more aggressively with inmates. Figures from the Department of Corrections show that the number of times officers use force on inmates has been increasing while the prison population is dropping.

According to a report from the University of North Florida, rural prisons — “out of sight” — are more brutal than others.

Based on Correction Department statistics, the report found that Lake Correctional Institution in Clermont is the most violent in the state with 45 incidents recorded per every 100 inmates.

Suwanee Correctional Institution in Live Oak isn’t far behind with 42 incidents per every 100 inmates.

The prison system last year experienced the most unrest in many years.

Jacksonville’s Tara Wildes, retired after 31 years in law enforcement and the former director of the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office’s Department of Corrections, has her own prediction of upcoming months for the prison system.

“It’s going to be a long, bad summer.”

The gut punch is that this summer doesn’t have to be that bad — or at least it could have had the state begin to turn down the heat.

The heat-reducing legislation required the establishment of a 28-member task force that would take a one-year deep dive into the prison system, coming up with suggestions on how it could be improved.

It shouldn’t take a genius to realize that would have been a good move.

This state resides at the bottom of the barrel in terms of prison reform. Even Texas and Georgia, which historically have had pathetic prisons, have taken gigantic leaps in saving money while protecting public safety.

“(The task force bill) was a tremendous opportunity to really move the ball in the right direction on policy,” says Sal Nuzzo, vice president of policy for the James Madison Institute. “Now we’re in this brackish area where we’re not even certain of how to move forward.”

Why? Well, the ball that could have moved Florida forward was dropped by the Legislature, and more specifically the House, which refused to even consider the bill.

Now, here comes the heat of July.

And if violence erupts this summer once again, it will be our Florida legislators who have the blood of both inmates and correctional officers on their hands.

To access the University of North Florida report on prison reform titled “In Their Eyes: Florida prison reform from inmates’ perspectives” — and its website — go to: