Despite past failed legislative attempts, a bipartisan pair of lawmakers is vowing to continue their work on criminal justice reform—particularly within Florida’s prison system.
It was just a few years ago when Sen. Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg) was appointed to the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. While most who sit on that panel have some sort of criminal justice background, Brandes is in real estate.
“Hearing what was going on in the state of Florida’s prison system, I felt like I was a plane at 30,000 feet with an engine out upside down and really nobody at the controls,” said Brandes, last month at a Suncoast Tiger Bay Club meeting. “As we looked around the system, we thought this was one of the areas of government that was most in crisis in Florida.”
“He [Brandes] and I are diametrically opposed on many political philosophies,” said Sen. Darryl Rouson (D-St. Petersburg) to laughter.
“One or two,” joked Brandes, at the time.
“But, there’s two or three that we walk on lockstep on, and so I concentrate on those,” Rouson continued.
Rouson is a lawyer who also sits on the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. As part of last month's Tiger Bay Club panel, both Rouson and Brandes spoke about the importance of criminal justice reform.
Brandes says as a novice, it was easy to see how much the prison system was in crisis because of the constant administrative turnover at the state corrections Department and other challenges.
“It had four different Secretaries at the Department of Corrections in five or six years, and so they had constant leadership change,” he stated. “We had all kinds of challenging issues with the prison system itself. We knew that the prison system was aging. So, the facilities were older. In fact, in some of our facilities, they can’t get pieces just to fix the gates. They were having manual guards sign in and sign out systems. And, so, an entire system that needed new, fresh eyes to look at it and a different way of thinking about criminal justice reform.”
Studies have shown that Florida prisoners serve significantly longer sentences than in other states, including for non-violent crimes. And, Brandes says that has to change.
“We have over the last 30 years—under Republican leadership and Democrat leadership—the tendency has always been to enhance the punishments, to go from a misdemeanor to a felony, to go from a third degree to a second degree felony,” he added. “And, there’s no real proof that there’s any societal benefit for these longer sentences, and because of the way that we’ve done it, we’ve structured it, so that when they finally leave the system, they’re essentially just let out into the community, with no real post-release supervision. So, it is a broken system.”
He says it’s going to take comprehensive reform to change the state prison system.
“I don’t think it’s one of these things where we can just go in, and do one policy here and one policy there and play whack-a-mole on public policy in prisons. It isn’t that kind of a problem. This needs comprehensive reform. We need to look at the prison system before they go into prison. We need to look at sentencing, right? Because sentencing and diversion for mental health and addiction services, that has to be number one on the front end. We need to look at the prison system itself. We have individuals who come in reading at the fourth grade level, spend five years in the prison system, and leave reading at the fourth grade level. That’s a problem.”
Brandes says Florida also needs to do better on the back-end by providing more support, tutoring, and guidance to released inmates. And, Senator Rouson agrees. Criminal Justice reform is especially personal for him because he suffered with a drug addiction for years.
“Remember, re-entry,” he said. “Restoration of rights, the opportunity to work, and I’ve had guys come up to me on street corners in Midtown, and they say, ‘Rouson, I’ve got a felony. I can’t find work. If I can’t find work, I will sling dope,’ and they’re very open about. We want to help them find work.”
And, Rouson says he and Brandes do not intend to give up on prison reform.
“We walked into the session with very high idealism, thinking that we could accomplish quite a bit, that the climate was right for this. But, based on what failed and what didn’t get through, we’re going to be coming back at it next year,” Rouson added.
Meanwhile, Brandes says their goal every year is to change the narrative among their House counterparts that they’re not being soft on crime, they’re being smart—looking at best practices around the country.
For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.