Originally Published: Tallahassee Democrat
Written by: David Safavian and Patrick Plein
For too long, politicians on both sides of the aisle have ignored the consequences of operating an ineffective, inhumane and expensive criminal justice system. In D.C., it took a massive push by conservatives, with President Trump leading the charge, to begin the much-needed process of reforming federal prisons.
The federal legislation, known as the First Step Act, provides inmates with incentives to take classes and participate in programs that have been proven to slow recidivism. The First Step Act recognized that we must do more to prepare people who are leaving prison to rejoin our communities.
In Florida, Sen. Jeff Brandes (R-Petersburg) is joining conservative lawmakers around the country in following President Trump’s footsteps with their own criminal justice reform efforts. The Florida First Step Act envisions Florida’s prisons as places for rehabilitation rather than an unproductive warehouse fitted with a revolving door.
Over one quarter of Florida’s offenders return to prison within three years of release. Inmates are failing to receive adequate education and training while in prison, and returning home without the skills needed to succeed. Only a government program can fail 25 percent of the time and continue to operate unchanged.
Unless inmates are job-ready and have relationships in place to help guide them through difficult process of re-entering the community, we are setting them — and ourselves — up for failure. Inmates are often denied employment, professional licenses and housing after completing their sentence, making it nearly impossible to become a productive member of society.
Florida’s First Step Act will expand opportunities for self-improvement by creating a prison entrepreneurship program, which grants professional licenses and certificates of employability upon successful completion.
The bill will help preserve family ties by requiring that prisoners be held within 150 miles of their place of residence, when security allows. Research shows that frequent family visits strengthen the bonds that motivate good behavior both within and beyond prison walls.
The Sunshine State’s imprisonment rate is a staggering 20% higher than the national average, and has wasted an astonishing amount of taxpayer money, all while failing to promote public safety. The reforms in the Florida First Step Act will save $1 billion in taxpayer dollars over the first five years.
By allowing prisoners to earn more time off their sentence through productive activity, inmates are incentivized to continue developing their education and skills throughout their sentence. The act also makes all legislation that reduces minimum mandatory sentences for certain offenses retroactive, allowing current inmates to benefit from new reforms as the Legislature pursues a safer and more taxpayer-friendly justice system.
Last, the bill creates a safety valve so judges can use their discretion in certain situations, to sentence defendants without having their hands tied up in bureaucracy. These smart-on-crime reforms have worked in conservative states across the country such as Texas, Georgia and Utah, by allowing prisons to allocate their limited space and security resources to the most dangerous offenders, while equipping lower-level-offenders with the skills necessary to turn their lives around.
Florida has an opportunity to follow the leadership of President Trump and join other conservative states that have fought to fix a bureaucratic system that has left victims’ needs unmet, offenders’ behaviors unchanged, and communities still suffering from crime.
David Safavian is the general counsel for the American Conservative Union. Patrick Plein is a government affairs analyst with the American Conservative Union Foundation.