Economists: Drug crimes could keep Florida prisons full

Florida Politics

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Reported crimes and arrests are down and Florida has held fewer people behind bars in recent years.

But forecasters working for the state aren’t expecting prison populations to continue to wane.

Economists for the Criminal Justice Estimating Conference cited an uptick in drug crimes during the past four months as one cause for keeping the prison population estimates somewhere between 96,000 and 97,000 through 2024.

That range is essentially stagnation — the state recorded a population of 96,253 inmates last year — despite the fact the number of yearly arrests has consistently shrunk through the past decade, and in the past few years the prison population has slowly decreased — down from 100,050 in fiscal year 2014-15.

But in the first four months of the current fiscal year, drug crimes accounted for the largest share of new commitments to Florida’s prison system. And the 2,167 new prisoners recorded for drug crimes between July and October account for a more than 7 percent increase compared to the same time last year.

An unchanging prison population is troubling. The Department of Corrections this year suffered a $28 million budget shortfall. To cover costs, DOC cut its re-entry program, designed to help convicts assimilate back into society once they’ve completed their sentences, reported the Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times.

State Sen. Jeff Brandes told Florida Politics the state “can currently afford about 86,000” inmates, or 10,000 fewer prisoners.

How does the state get there? According to Brandes, who will chair the Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice in the upcoming Legislative Session, it starts with sentencing reform.

“Florida’s sentencing isn’t working,” said Brandes, a Republican from St. Petersburg. With more than 100 mandatory minimums, “you’re seeing that is creating all kinds of problems inside the corrections system.”

Brandes expects to address diversion programs through legislation in the near future. That includes expanding diversion programs, like drug courts, to more rural areas.

He also hopes to work with Attorney General-elect Ashley Moody on sentencing reform as a whole, “although it’s not something that’s going to be done in a day.” As well, Brandes said beefing up transition programs, like halfway houses, will be a priority.

Between January and June, the state recorded 282,276 crimes, about 8 percent less than the crimes reported through the same period in 2017. Likewise, arrests were down about 2 percent through the first sixth months of 2018.

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