Florida prison reform could help people adjust to life after incarceration, reports say

Violent crime in the greater Tampa Bay region has decreased over 20% in the past five years.

Despite this drop in crime, incarceration rates remain the same, according to a report from the Florida Policy Project. That’s because the same people keep cycling through prison.

Former state Sen. Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg) is the founder of Florida Policy Project. He said the reports provide state lawmakers the easiest ways and “best practices” to improve the criminal justice system.

The group’s research found 90% of the 82,000 inmates in Florida’s prisons will eventually return to communities.

“(The recommendations) would ultimately increase public safety, reduce costs, and allow us to spend more money on the issues that truly reduce recidivism and improve outcomes for everybody,” Brandes said.

Recommendations for inmates’ life after prison

The group’s latest research found over 60% of people released from prison will return within three years of their release.

But certain programs like mental health treatment, visitations, and transitional services could lower that number.

Man sitting down and speaking into a microphone

News Service of Florida

Former state Sen. Jeff Brandes is the founder of Florida Policy Project. He said the reports provide state lawmakers the easiest ways and “best practices” to improve the criminal justice system.

Physical and mental healthcare for all inmates is constitutionally required. But Brandes said the state’s ability to provide adequate mental health care is lacking.

“The standards need to be adhered to,” Brandes he aid. “But even before we raise them, we should meet them. The existing standards, and across the board, we’re really not meeting our standards.”

Visitations for people in prison also play an important role in reconviction rates. Those who receive visits while incarcerated are 13% less likely to be reconvicted, and 25% less likely to be arrested, the report shows.

Some recommendations from the group are to provide additional funding to the Florida Department of Corrections to hire more staff and simplify the visitation process.

The Florida Department of Corrections is the third largest prison system in the U.S. Before you can visit an inmate, you must be an approved visitor, according to its website.

The lengthy process includes filling out an application, and submitting by e-mail or mail. It can take about 30 days for a final decision. If approved, you then must complete the “visitation scheduling form,” which is only available Monday 5 a.m. through Wednesday 5 p.m. each week.

About 1 in 4 people released from state prisons will be back behind bars within 3 years.

“Part of that is dealing with a prison population, that if you do nothing, is more likely to to commit new crimes and get back involved in the criminal justice and prison system.”

“Florida’s elderly population is growing pretty substantially and we don’t see a slowdown in that trend over time. Those are the really, really expensive inmates to house.”

Jeff Brandes

Increasing budgets for work release or job assistance, substance abuse programs, and adult education would help lowering recidivism rates, according to the report.

“We don’t really have a department of corrections in Florida, we have a department of warehousing,” Brandes said. “For the most part, we have warehoused individuals until they’re old. Then we release them with 50 bucks and a bus pass. And we’re shocked when they commit new crimes.

“There isn’t job training, and half of your inmates can’t read at the sixth-grade level.”

Recommendations for the elderly prison population

A second report from the organization addresses the growing population of “elderly” inmates in the state.

But what you might think of as “elderly” is different for people in Florida prisons. There state law defines it as someone age 50 and over.

Trends over the past decade show the percent of older inmates is growing faster than other prisons in the U.S.

Florida Policy Project’s research found it costs twice the amount to house an elderly inmate compared to that of a younger adult. In addition, prisons on average spend 5 times more on medical care and 14 times more on prescription drugs for inmates over 50.

“There’s a lot of things that the state of Florida could do that it isn’t doing that would radically reduce the cost,” Brandes said. “Florida’s elderly population is growing pretty substantially and we don’t see a slowdown in that trend over time.

“Those are the really, really expensive inmates to house.”

The report also found that people 60 and over are much less likely to return to crime after their release. Brandes said during his travels around the state to visit prisons, the amount of people using walkers was shocking.

“If (the state) implements best practices to deal with the elderly population, when they get home, they can go on Medicare or Medicaid,” Brandes said. “They can get their medical treatment taken care of there, and that wouldn’t be on the state’s dime.”

Utilizing conditional releases based on an older inmate’s age and sentence length would reduce the costs to the state, according to the report.

The group will release another report next week regarding the best practices for veterans in the criminal justice system.

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