Florida got rid of parole in the 1980s and ‘90s. Prison populations grew. Some now say it should return.
A recent study published by a conservative criminal justice reform organization concludes that Florida should bring back parole.
Right on Crime, a project of the Texas Public Policy Institute, a conservative think tank, released the study last month. It concluded a moderate and gradual reinstatement of parole would improve public safety and save taxpayer money.
“As Floridians, we should demand more for our public safety,” the study concludes. “Parole has far too many benefits, and Florida’s criminal justice system has far too many problems for policymakers to keep ignoring this potentially valuable tool.”
The study suggests those convicted of nonviolent crimes should be eligible for parole after serving 60 percent of their sentence. The paper also suggests specific convictions, like murder and sex crimes, could be designated as ineligible for parole.
“Not everyone deserves parole, especially those with habitually violent records,” it states. “Parole should not be a ‘one size fits all,’ and just because someone is eligible for parole does not mean they should be released.”
Although various justice reforms have received bipartisan support in recent years, the paper is notable in that it comes from a right-of-center organization.
Will the study influence Florida’s Republican-dominated state government?
“With this administration and this Legislature, you will find there is little desire for anything substantial in criminal justice,” said state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, who has made criminal justice issues a focus of his work in the state Senate.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the Florida Sheriff’s Association said the organization strongly opposes reinstating parole. They pointed to their own study, published in 2019, which concluded that Florida’s current laws have resulted in a reduction in crime.
Florida eliminated parole for most offenses in 1983, then abolished it entirely in the mid-1990s. Today, Florida is one of 16 states that do not have parole.
The law also requires that prisoners serve at least 85 percent of their sentences before they can achieve an early release. The rule applies regardless of whether their crime was nonviolent.
The state still has a parole board, which these days is dubbed the Florida Commission on Offender Review. The three-person panel examines the cases of people convicted of crimes before the state abolished parole. But few these days are granted release and the majority of the state’s prisoners are ineligible.
The years since parole was abolished have seen the prison population grow. A few years ago, the numbers swelled to more than 100,000. They have dipped more recently, to about 80,000 prisoners as of 2021, according to a yearly report from the Department of Corrections. The decrease is partly due to the COVID-19 pandemic, during which there were fewer people moving to prison from county jails.
The state has 50 of what are termed “major institutions.” Some facilities are older and afflicted with aging infrastructure. The prison system also has grappled in recent years with staffing shortages. A little more than a quarter of the prison population includes people aged 50 or older. Elderly prisoners often have special health care needs, which increase incarceration costs.
The Right on Crime study recommends expanding the number of people on the state’s parole board to include a formerly incarcerated person and a crime victim or victim advocate.
It examines expenses, noting that it costs an average of about $76 a day to incarcerate a person. It compares that figure with the average cost to keep a person on community supervision, which ranges from $7.18 to $11.69 a day, with the cost slightly higher if subject to electronic monitoring.
The study compares Florida with Texas, Tennessee, Louisiana and Oklahoma — states deemed to have similar politics and approaches to criminal justice. All but Florida offer parole, with varying points of eligibility.
Texas allows parole consideration once a person has served 15 years or 25 percent of their sentence, whichever is first, except for those convicted of violent or sex crimes. The other states also offer parole after specified percentages of a sentence have been served.
The paper suggests augmenting parole with supervision, and resources for former prisoners to obtain housing and employment.
“Adding parole is not necessarily a magic wand,” said Chelsea Murphy, the paper’s author. “There are a lot of things that need to happen to make this successful.”