‘A billion dollars could be saved’: Florida lawmakers proposing changes to prison parole system

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Changes to Florida’s parole system are being discussed in Tallahassee.

Channel 9 investigative reporter Daralene Jones has been reviewing the proposals, and she found only a small portion of the inmate population is eligible for early release. According to the Commission on Offender Review, there are now 3,851 inmates eligible for parole, based on the state guidelines. In the last three years, only between 20 to 34 have been granted parole each year.

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Florida prisons are in a crisis. They are overcrowded and understaffed-as the state faces a major budget deficit, and state lawmakers are considering closing a prison to save money.

“We do not have the available or appropriate staffing, or sufficient bed space to receive the inmates from a hypothetically closed prison,” Department of Corrections Secretary Mark Inch told a Senate appropriations committee in February.

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Lawmakers are pushing another option found in House Bill 69 and Senate Bill 620. Advocates believe the companion proposals would make it easier for the state’s Commission on Offender Review to approve parole for those eligible.

“This is designed strictly for those who have been in the system 30 years or more who haven’t been given a proper opportunity to be paroled out,” said Keith Harris with the Florida Justice League.

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Inmates eligible for parole are those who committed:

  • Any felony prior to Oct. 1, 1983, or those who elected to be sentenced “outside the guidelines” for felonies committed prior to July 1, 1984.
  • All capital felonies committed prior to Oct. 1, 1995, except: a) murder or felony murder committed after May 25, 1994; b) making, possessing, throwing, placing or discharging a destructive device or attempt to do so which results in the death of another person after May 25, 1994; c) first-degree murder of a law enforcement officer, correctional officer, state attorney or assistant state attorney committed after Jan. 1, 1990; and d) first-degree murder of a justice or judge committed after Oct. 1, 1990.
  • Any continuing criminal enterprise committed before June 17, 1993;
  • Any attempted murder of a law enforcement officer committed between Oct. 1, 1988, and Oct. 1, 1995.

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Florida effectively abolished parole in 1983, but those sent to prison prior to that are still eligible.

That’s about 3,857 inmates. If lawmakers give serious consideration to a revision of gain time, allowing inmates to earn reductions in their overall sentence, that opens the door for early release of even more of the 79,000 inmates serving time.

“We don’t have the funds to continue as we are. We’re hopeful that this session will be different. It is projected that a billion dollars could be saved through parole programs or gain time,” said Carrie Boyd of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

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The proposals being considered would provide guidelines for the Commission on Offender Review to focus on programs completed by an inmate and their discipline referrals — all of it laid out in a survey sent to inmates who would be eligible. Jones asked Harris whether the DOC would really be moving the needle and reducing the DOC budget with these proposals.

“It would have a minor impact, but it would open up the beds that the prisons need,” Harris said.

DOC Secretary Mark Inch has been vocal in public hearings about the staffing shortage to adequately monitor the prison population.

Last month, he told lawmakers that only nine of the 50 facilities are staffed appropriately, and 30 are under emergency staffing orders.