Florida Pheonix: “State senators want more rehabilitation for inmates and incentives to shorten prison sentences”

A bipartisan effort advancing this week in the state Senate would bolster prison rehabilitation programs to allow inmates to earn shorter sentences.

That concept, called gain time, is part of legislation sponsored by Republican Sen. Keith Perry, who believes that the programs make society safer by providing inmates with education, job training, and treatment before being released.

“The driver is public safety,” said Perry, who represents Alachua and Putnam counties and part of Marion County.  “The question is are they [inmates] better off or worse off when they get released? And the answer is, they’re worse off, almost inevitably they’re worse off.”

Perry said his plan addresses data showing that 90 percent of inmates are repeat offenders, with 130,000 inmates on track to be released over the next five years.

He said that incentivizing those inmates to practice good behavior, pursue education and engage in other forms of behavioral improvement, in exchange for sentence reductions, could make them far less likely to reoffend when they are set free.

Sen. George Gainer, a northwest Florida Republican, and Sen. Jim Boyd, a Republican representing parts of Hillsborough and Manatee counties, said they remain skeptical and worry that measures to shorten sentences would offend the law enforcement community that put the inmates behind bars.

But Democratic senators Bobby Powell of Palm Beach County and Annette Taddeo of Miami-Dade said Perry’s bill encompasses measures they have long promoted without success, to set up inmates for post-release success.

“I want to be make sure when people come out, they’re able to get a job,” Taddeo said, calling for more funding for job training programs. “We are spending so much money in our system keeping them incarcerated.”

Taddeo and Powell said they agree with prison advocates — including crime victims in favor of inmate rehabilitation — that the state will benefit from instituting gain time for Florida inmates who engage in rehabilitative programs.

One of those advocates is crime victim Amy McCourt, who told the senators this week that she wants the men who attacked her family to get rehabilitation before being released, so they are less likely to offend again.

“During this time, the focus should be on rehabilitating and incentivizing prisoners to be better, so that when they do return to society, they have learned something from their experience and are equipped with education, training, skills, programs, treatment, whatever else is necessary to better their lives while preparing for release,” McCourt said.

Perry acknowledged the concept of early release is a tough one for some lawmakers, including himself, but he said he increasingly sees incarceration as an opportunity for rehabilitation and not just punishment.

He was very clear that he believes it is unsafe to release inmates when they complete their sentences without having helped them change for the better while behind bars.

“We owe it to the people of the state of Florida to do everything we can to create a more safe environment for them, and with the way we’re going now, with the Department of Corrections, we’re not doing that,” Perry said. “We’re creating a system where half of those people are back in trouble in three years.”

Sen. Jeff Brandes, a Republican from Pinellas County, and Sen. Randolph Bracy, a Democrat from Orange County, sponsored similar legislation last year without success. They assert that creating early-release incentives and providing the necessary resources to engage in rehabilitation could change incarcerated people into productive citizens who pose no further threat to society.

Legislative analysts estimate that reducing recidivism by investing in rehabilitative programs would save Florida taxpayers $840 million.

You can see Perry’s legislation, SB 1032, here.

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