Drug Charge Reforms, Compassionate Release Could Save Florida Money

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drugs: Elderly woman in Dark Prison behind bars

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Florida currently spends $2.4 billion annually on its criminal justice system. With the state’s criminal justice system operations being the third largest in the country, there are more than 96,000 Floridians in state prisons and another 166,000 under community supervision. We saw a 9% reduction in crime rates statewide in 2018, which is in line with Florida’s 48-year trend. 

drugs: Shannon Belmont (headshot), research analyst with Florida TaxWatch, smiling woman with long brown hair, earrings, black and white outfit

Shannon Belmont

Although we are reducing the amount of crime being committed in Florida each year, there are still many areas that need to be improved upon, such as overcriminalization and overincarceration, mandatory sentencing requirements and the growing elderly prison population. Many would agree that Florida’s criminal justice system is not operating as effectively and efficiently as it could, ultimately costing taxpayers millions of dollars. Finding solutions to these pressing issues is critical for taxpayers and the future operations of the criminal justice system.

Incarcerated Americans account for 25% of the world’s prisoners, largely due to the overly harsh consequences of drug convictions.

Approximately, 1.6 million people are being arrested, prosecuted, incarcerated, placed under criminal justice supervision and/or deported each year on a drug law violation. In 2018, 134,396 Floridians were arrested for drugs and/or narcotic offenses. Such overcriminalization reduces social welfare and social benefits. 

Emerging academic literature suggests there are likely benefits associated with the decriminalization of some drug possession offenses. Florida lawmakers should reduce outdated sentencing for Florida inmates for minor drug-related charges because it will allow for law enforcement to reallocate its resources to combat other crimes and would reduce the amount of money spent each year for incarceration. A 2014 Florida TaxWatch Report observed that Florida could save significant corrections costs by reducing prison sentences for nonviolent offenders. 

Overincarceration in Florida started in the late 1990s. As a result, state spending on prisons and corrections has been going up, due in part to an aging inmate population. Nationwide, the aging prison population is the fastest-growing segment of the inmate population. 

Florida is one of 49 states and the District of Columbia that recognizes one or more forms of compassionate release. “Compassionate release” allows for the early release of sick, elderly or disabled prisoners; however, the federal compassionate release program has existed for decades but is hardly utilized. 

In 2018, there were 27,719 elderly inmates incarcerated in Florida. Health care costs the state $20,367 per year per inmate, but inmates older than 50 can cost as much as $70,000 a year, due to increased medical costs. Such policy recommendations as implementing a geriatric conditional-release program that makes age a consideration for early release would go a long way in decreasing the burden on Florida taxpayers and reducing the prison population. Elderly ailing inmates generally are in no condition to pose a threat to personal safety. 

Other states using safety valves

Another policy recommendation that should be considered to address overcriminalization and overincarceration in Florida is the creation of a judicial safety valve. A safety valve allows a judge to sentence a person below the mandatory minimum term if certain conditions are met. This recommendation can save taxpayers money because they allow courts to give shorter, more appropriate prison sentences to offenders who pose less of a public safety threat. The safety valve really goes to work to save taxpayer dollars and alleviates overcrowding of prisons, which opens prison beds for those who pose the biggest threat to society. 

Michigan, for example, repealed most of its drug-related mandatory minimums in 2002 and as a result, prison admittance fell, billions in taxpayer dollars were saved, and the crime rate fell 27%. Even more modest changes to mandatory prison sentencing has proven to be effective. South Carolina in 2010 passed a bill that would exempt first-time convictions of simple drug possession from mandatory minimums. This resulted in saving taxpayers millions by closing two minimum-security prisons and reduced crime rates in the state. 

State sens. Jeff Brandes, a Republican, and Darryl Rouson, a Democrat, have been champions of criminal justice reform in Florida. Brandes has filed six bills related to either mandatory minimums or elderly geriatric conditional-release programs, and Rouson has filed one bill related to mandatory minimums. These bills will be taken up during the 2020 Florida Legislative session. 

Florida needs to give judges more flexibility for sentencing and the discretion to determine appropriate punishments. With relational sentences, Florida can reduce both sentence lengths and the likelihood individuals will commit further crimes, in tandem with saving taxpayers millions of dollars. 

To further taxpayer savings, the elderly, ailing prison population needs to be moved to a supervised-conditional release program, which is less costly and better equipped to serve this population. TaxWatch strongly urges legislators to take a hard look at the issues plaguing the criminal justice system in the state and consider utilizing the policy recommendations mentioned.

Shannon Belmont is a research analyst with Florida TaxWatch. She received a master’s degree in public health with a concentration in health policy from Nova Southeastern University.

2 thoughts on “Drug Charge Reforms, Compassionate Release Could Save Florida Money

  1. It’s hard to ignore powerful statistics and examples from other states. This is a well written and insightful dive into a difficult issue. Change seems overdue and prudent from a fiscal and social point of view.

  2. This new concept for incarceration would be a giant step in a positive direction. We are simply too punitive in Florida – especially when examining the sentence structures of other states.