Florida Leads In Time Prisoners Spend Behind Bars: Study

The study was done by the Pew Center on the States

By Bill Kaczor
|  Wednesday, Jun 6, 2012  |  Updated 9:08 AM EDT
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Florida led 35 states in a study issued Wednesday with a whopping 166 percent increase in the estimated average time that released prisoners spent behind bars over a 19-year span.

The study by the Pew Center on the States concluded Florida spent an extra $1.4 billion on prisons in 2009 alone because of the longer average release time, much of it for nonviolent inmates.

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"Violent and career criminals belong behind bars, and for a long time, but building more prisons to house lower-risk, nonviolent inmates for longer sentences simply is not the best way to reduce crime," Pew project director Adam Gelb said in a statement.

The study says one key factor in lengthening Florida's prison stays was a 1995 law that requires inmates to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences before they can be released.

Another was tougher penalties across the board. That includes Florida's 10-20-Life law that sets minimum mandatory sentences for crimes committed with firearms.

A third factor has been judges' decisions to sentence criminals who commit relatively minor felonies to a year and a day as a way to save money for cash-strapped county governments. That's because inmates sentenced to a year or less serve their terms in county jails. Those with longer sentences, even just a day longer, go to state prison.

A companion Pew analysis based on 2004 data found some nonviolent prisoners could have been released up to two years earlier with little or no effect on public safety. Florida could have reduced its prison population by 2,640 inmates and saved $54 million that year with shorter terms for nonviolent offenders.

The Florida Legislature this year passed a bill that would have allowed judges to reduce sentences for a limited number of nonviolent inmates who serve at least half of their terms and go through rehabilitation programs, but Gov. Rick Scott vetoed it. Scott said the measure would have been an injustice to victims and violated the 85 percent requirement.

The bill was part of a national movement to reduce sentences for relatively minor crimes called "Right on Crime" that's being pushed by such conservative stalwarts as anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who championed the 10-20-Life law.

The Legislature, though, rejected other bills that would have reduced lengthy minimum mandatory sentences for possession of relatively small amounts of controlled substances.

Florida was the only state of 35 included in the study that more than doubled prisoners' time served from 1990 through 2009. Virginia was second with a 91 percent increase. For all of the 35 states, the increase was 36 percent. The study, though, only included prisoners who had been released each year. Overall sentences including inmates still in prison would be longer.

During the study period, Florida's average time served for released felons went from 1.1 years to three years. Although its percentage increase was the greatest, Florida's 2009 time served estimate was only slightly above the 2.9-year average for all the states.

Ten states had higher averages led by Michigan's 4.3 years. That's because Florida had the shortest time served among the 35 states in 1990.

Florida's prisons then were overcrowded due mainly to an increase in drug convictions and the state was under a federal court order capping their capacity. The state adopted generous early release policies to stay in compliance. That ended in the mid-1990s with the so-called "truth in sentencing" law that required inmates to serve 85 percent of their terms.

The report says the law was a response outrage over crimes committed by felons who had been released after serving less than half of their sentences including the murders of two Miami police officers.

The 10-20-Life bill was among the toughest of a series of laws that increased sentences.

Florida, though, got even tougher on nonviolent criminals. The Pew study estimates Florida's average time served for violent crime increased from 2.1 to five years, or 137 percent, from 1990 through 2009. But it increased from 0.9 to 2.7 years, or 181 percent, for property crimes and from 0.8 to 2.3 years, or 194 percent, for drug crimes.

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