ST. PETERSBURG, Florida – Passage of legislation establishing Florida as a leader in criminal justice data collection has primed the Sunshine State for data-driven policy change that will reduce recidivism, lower corrections spending, and safely bring down the prison population, said Len Engel, director of policy and campaigns at the Crime and Justice Institute.

Speaking Wednesday, May 9, at a criminal justice symposium hosted by state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, Engel said gains during the 2018 session created momentum for further analysis and legislation focused on addressing the factors driving Florida’s dangerously high prison population. The state currently ranks third in the nation for largest incarcerated population, despite violent and property crime rates at their lowest levels since the 1960s.

“There has been a demonstrated commitment from legislative leaders and stakeholders from across the political spectrum to get Floridians a better return on their public safety investment,” Engel said. “Over the coming months, we’ll be working together to develop solutions to those issues using data and system analysis and examining policies and practices that have helped other states safely reduce their prison populations.”

In early 2017, Florida’s Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability selected CJI to perform an initial assessment of trends in the state’s prison population. At the conclusion of that assessment, the Florida Senate contracted CJI to continue examining the state’s criminal justice system, compare other states’ policies, and make recommendations to improve Florida’s system.

CJI’s analysis found that in the past decade, Florida experienced a 28 percent decline in prison admissions and a 39 percent reduction in individuals returning to prison for probation violations. Furthermore, Florida’s crime rate has been steadily declining since the early 1990s. Yet the prison population has remained virtually unchanged, hovering near 100,000 for years.

Florida laws dating back to the 1980s and ’90s have produced longer sentences for all offense types, resulting in a swelling corrections budget no public safety return on this investment.

Florida’s requirement that all individuals serve at least 85 percent of their sentence has created a growing prison population with little incentive to complete treatment or reentry programs. This includes nonviolent offenders and elderly inmates, who face limited options for early medical release even when they are physically incapable of posing a danger to the community.

CJI’s follow-up report in February made a series of recommendations, including changing simple drug possession to a misdemeanor, increasing the felony theft threshold from $300 to $1,500, reducing the application of mandatory minimum sentences, and limiting the requirement that individuals serve at least 85 percent of their sentence.

In its report, CJI suggests that by following the lead of states like Texas, Georgia, Utah, and Mississippi, Florida can hold offenders accountable while safely reducing its prison population. Florida can shorten sentences for lower level offenses, provide greater discretion to judges, expand alternatives to incarceration and better coordinate prevention, supervision and treatment with local criminal justice and law enforcement leaders and improve public safety.

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