Florida House drags feet on prison reform legislation, supporters threaten ballot petition

'This thing has been a long time coming'
Posted at 7:10 PM, Feb 05, 2020
and last updated 2020-02-05 19:10:05-05

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Crime victims, former inmates and parents of current ones called for passage of meaningful prison reform on Wednesday morning.

Crowded on the steps of Florida’s old capitol, the group of perhaps 100 or more pushed for passage of House Bill 189.

It would increase good behavior credit for first-time, non-violent offenders, from 15 to 35 percent.

“I feel the presence of something going to happen,” said Kay Cardona, mother of a Florida inmate who attended the rally. “It’s 2020. This thing has been a long time coming.”

The less time behind bars could be a savings of about $850 million for Florida Corrections, according to the sponsor of the legislation Rep. Dianne Hart, D-Tampa.

Hart said that money could be reinvested in prison improvements.

“I say let’s put that $850 million back into our facilities for vocational training, educational opportunities,” said Hart. “I firmly believe we can no longer give people $50 and a bus ticket and send them home without any hope or opportunity.”

The bill is one piece of a slew of criminal justice reform measures this session. Senator Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, helped create much of the legislation— including bills giving judges more sentencing discretion, and early release for elderly or terminally ill inmates.

“The Florida system isn’t working as well as it could,” Brandes said. “We simply warehouse people in the Florida Corrections System. We aren’t correcting their behavior, though we call it the Department of Corrections.”

The bills are getting bipartisan traction in the Senate but failing to move in the House. There, tough on crime Republicans hold a larger margin. Plus, law enforcement is warning even non-violent offender releases can be dangerous.

Session hits its midway point next Wednesday. If any of the criminal justice reform legislation is going to reach the governor’s desk, more movement in the coming weeks is crucial.