Florida leads nation in longer prison sentences. Just another reason to get an experienced Criminal Defense lawyer if you are arrested in Ft Lauderdale Florida
12:04 a.m. EST, June 6, 2012|
By Aaron Deslatte, Tallahassee Bureau Chief
TALLAHASSEE — Thanks to its gung-ho approach to lengthening jail time, Florida led the charge in beefing up prison sentences during the past two decades at a taxpayer cost of more than $1 billion a year, according to a new study by the Pew Center on the States.
The nonprofit organization's report, titled "Time Served: The High Cost, Low Return of Longer Prison Terms," examined prisoner-release data from 35 states, representing 89 percent of the prison releases in 2009. It concluded that prisoners served an average of nine more months in custody — 36 percent longer — than offenders released in 1990.
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The report's release comes amid a movement nationwide — and particularly in the Southeast, where incarceration rates are the highest — to combat an explosion in prison populations by shortening sentences for nonviolent crimes and diverting drug violators to treatment programs instead of prisons.
But the report draws a bull's-eye on Florida, which has so far resisted the reform tide.
The Sunshine State led the nation in lengthening prison sentences under both Democratic and Republican governors. Spurred by South Florida's drug wars, and the murders of two Miami police officers and two British tourists in the early 1990s, Florida enacted tougher laws, including mandating "truth in sentencing" requirements for all crimes and the "10-20-Life" law for possessing or using firearms when committing a crime.
Drug-related sentences climbed 194 percent during the study period, from 0.8 years on average to 2.3 years. Sentences for violent crimes grew 137 percent, from 2.1 years to 5 years. Sentences for property crimes such as burglary, breaking and entering, and vehicle theft grew 181 percent, from 0.9 years to 2.7 years on average.
As a result, the average prison time served grew by 166 percent and cost taxpayers $1.4 billion in 2009. The 36,678 Florida prisoners released in 2009 served an average of 22 months longer and cost taxpayers $38,477 more per prisoner than those released in 1990, the study determined.
The next-closest state was Virginia, which saw a 91 percent increase.
"Florida does stick out like a sore thumb," said Adam Gelb, director of Pew's Public Safety Performance Project. "Florida right now is surrounded by states that are typically more conservative on these issues that have taken dramatic steps to rein in their sentencing and corrections costs."
Indeed, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal last month signed a reform reducing jail time for nonviolent criminals that is expected to save the state $264 million over five years. And Louisiana passed legislation that expands parole eligibility for repeat offenders and nonviolent ones serving life sentences; expands the state's re-entry courts; and allows courts to waive mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders.
Since 2011, more than a dozen other states — from Hawaii to Texas, Alabama and North Carolina — have reduced sentences for nonviolent offenders to save money.
Florida would have been on the list. The Legislature this spring overwhelmingly passed a bill that would have reduced prison time for nonviolent offenders by requiring them to go into a re-entry program focused on substance-abuse treatment.
But Gov. Rick Scott vetoed the legislation, saying Florida's tough sentences had reduced crime rates and that "justice … is not served when a criminal is permitted to be released early from a sentence imposed by the courts."
Scott's office, instead, tried to privatize a huge swath of South Florida's prisons, although the effort died in the Senate.