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Efforts To Change Prison Sentences Failed In Florida's Capitol

Dianne Hart speaking to a crowd
Rep. Dianne Hart, D-Tampa, speaks to protestors gathered outside Lowell Correctional Institute on Sunday afternoon, January 26, 2020. Hart urged them to call their legislators and demand that the abuses they faced at Lowell be addressed.

As Florida's Legislature finishes its work in the Capitol, efforts fizzled that seemed promising just weeks ago to reduce prison sentences for non-violent offenders and otherwise reform the state's broken prison system.

Over the final days, senators were pushing bills – sponsored by lawmakers from both parties – that would re-examine the way courts handle drug trafficking offenses, reduce the length of mandatory minimum sentences and improve programs to help prisoners make a smoother transition once they were released.

But some of the companion bills were never heard in the House, stranded in subcommittees that didn't meet during the final weeks of the legislative session.

Bills appeared bottled up in the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee, led by Rep. James Grant, R-Tampa, who has publicly expressed support for the powerful Florida Sheriff's Association, which generally opposes reducing prison terms or eliminating mandatory minimums for some crimes.

Grant, whose campaign supporters include the Geo Group Inc., which runs private prisons across the United States, declined to discuss the subject despite more than 10 interview requests made in person, over the phone or via email over the course of four weeks.  

It's unclear whether such proposals face better prospects in future years. The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, is expected to be the House speaker in 2022, assuming Republicans still control the House.

Dianne Hart listens to a speaker during a rally
Rep. Dianne Hart, D-Tampa, center, listens to former correctional officer Janice Spears speak about conditions inside Lowell Correctional Institution during a protest outside of the facility on Sunday afternoon, January 26, 2020.

More than five bills on the topic of reforming Florida’s prisons sat unheard in Grant’s subcommittee. They included changing the mandatory minimum length of someone’s prison term to 85% of its sentence, revising criminal sentencing requirements, establishing conviction integrity review units, reforming the treatment of prison inmates, and ensuring that lawmakers can talk to inmates during prison visits.

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, a Republican who is president of the Florida Sheriffs Association, said mandatory minimums should not be changed. He said people have a false perception about the number of violent offenders and types of criminals in prisons in Florida.

“The system is not broken and doesn’t need to be fixed,” Gualtieri said. He criticized some proposals as “let the bad guys out of jail.”  

Rep. Dianne Hart, D-Tampa, said she was appalled the House didn’t vote on changing mass incarceration policies. She noted support from Republicans, such as Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, who sponsored a bill for sentencing reforms.  

“It’s disheartening,” Hart said. “But we will keep on fighting. I have no intention of stopping.”

The lack of headway came during a year when Florida’s prisons – housing nearly 100,000 inmates – were under fire amid allegations of excessive abuse against prisoners, understaffed and overworked guards and poor living conditions. A legislative study last year said Florida could save $860 million over five years by reducing prison terms for non-violent offenders.

Brandes, vice chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, said there was no broad vision for criminal justice in Florida. He urged Republicans in the House to cast a “bolder vision” on the subject.

“We need champions to rise up in the Florida House, specifically in the majority party,” Brandes said.

Criminal justice reform is not a priority in Tallahassee, especially in the House, agreed Sen. Randolph Bracy, D-Orlando.  

“Whether the House agrees with our perspective or not, we can’t continue down the road of mass incarceration,” he said.

Kim Lawrance of Winter Haven, an activist whose 19-year-old daughter is serving 10 years on a robbery charge in Florida’s system, was frustrated at the lack of voting on the issue. She said it’s difficult telling those who are or have loved ones behind bars that their future looks bleak.

“People inside are waiting for some kind of break, especially when you’re doing good,” she said. “You’re trying to make up for what you did and you’re still punished. It’s a bad message. It’s heartbreaking.”

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