The Florida Senate Criminal Justice Committee voted unanimously in support of a bill ending some mandatory minimum sentences on Tuesday. According to reports from the Tampa Bay Times, the lawmakers who support the bill believe it could save the state millions of dollars each year. It currently costs Florida taxpayers nearly $20,000 a year to house, feed, and care for each of the nonviolent offenders in the state’s prison system.
Mandatory minimum sentencing laws require a judge to order a minimum amount of jail time for certain crimes. The amount varies based on the offense, but the laws leave little room for leeway. Many prison reform advocates blame these laws for overcrowded jails and ballooning Department of Corrections budgets.
What would the “prison diversion bill” do?
Senate Bill 0290, called the “prison diversion bill,” would end mandatory sentencing for many drug-related and non-violent offenses. St. Petersburg Senator Daryl Rouson sponsored the bill and believes it could save the state more than $130 million each year. Next up, the rest of the Senate will take a look at the bill.
Florida currently has almost 120 mandatory minimum sentences on the books. This measure would allow judges to use their discretion when sentencing nonviolent offenders and those convicted of drug possession and similar crimes. The passage of Senate Bill 0290 would not alter the laws relating to drug trafficking or violent offenses.
How much of an impact could this change have?
The Florida Department of Corrections reports that in Fiscal Year 2013-14, taxpayers spent almost $50 a day — $18,064 per year — to house each inmate in the state’s prison system. With almost 101,000 inmates, this expense adds up quickly. Sen. Rouson and other supporters of Senate Bill 0290 see little advantage to paying so much when most of these offenders pose little harm to the general public.
Florida’s neighbor to the north, Georgia, instituted similar prison reform laws to help reduce the prison population and save taxpayers money in 2012 and 2013. Just a year later, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported a 20 percent decrease in the number of African Americans sentenced to jail time in the state.
The results could be even more dramatic in Florida. The Florida Department of Corrections reported that only 53.4 percent of the 100,873 inmates in the FL prison system were violent offenders (as of December 31, 2014). Many of the remaining 46.6 percent might have avoided jail time if not for the state’s mandatory minimum laws in place at the time of their conviction.
Sen. Rouson’s estimate of $130 million saved equates to a reduction of only about 1,000 inmates. This means the measure could save taxpayers even more.
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