TALLAHASSEE (The News Service of Florida) — A new study by the Pew Charitable Trusts finds Florida leading the nation in inmates who “max out” their sentences — serving 100 percent of their time and being released with no supervision beyond the prison gates.
The study found that 64.3 percent of Florida inmates, or 21,426 offenders, were released in 2012 without conditions, monitoring or support.
The states with the next-highest rates were Maine with 63.4 percent, or 703 unsupervised releases, and North Carolina with 59.9 percent, or 7,388. The state with the lowest max-out rate was Oregon with 0.4 percent, or 22 unsupervised releases. The average of all states was 21.5 percent.
In Florida, the study's results drew varying reactions from policymakers and people knowledgeable about the criminal-justice system.
"You can go in Florida from solitary confinement to the street, and that’s probably not a good thing," said Allison DeFoor, chairman of the Project on Accountable Justice at Florida State University and a former Monroe County sheriff and judge.
He agreed with the Pew study’s recommendation that states require a period of post-prison supervision for all offenders to reduce recidivism and costs.
"I’ve had plenty of clients, when I was a criminal defense attorney, say, 'I'll take more time and no paper, thank you very much,' " DeFoor said. "And they were the seasoned ones, the ones who really knew the system."
But Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, president of the Florida Sheriffs Association, pointed to the same data and said, "We should celebrate that we don’t have parole and crime is at a 43-year low. When we had a parole system in Florida where we watched out for people upon their release from prison, they didn’t stay in prison as long, and our crime rate was through the roof."
Florida abolished parole in 1983 and adopted a system of sentences that are definite and not subject to review by a parole board. Florida was also one of the first states to adopt a truth-in-sentencing law, requiring all offenders who committed crimes on or after Oct. 1, 1995, to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences.
"Since then, the number of inmates maxing out in Florida has risen steadily," noted the Pew study. In 1990, Florida released approximately 12,000 inmates, or 32 percent of offenders, without supervision. By 2012, the max-out rate had doubled.
Like Judd, House Criminal Justice Chairman Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, said the study findings were good news.
"I’m proud that Florida keeps bad guys and gals behind bars longer than most," he said.
But Gaetz also said he believes in supervision after release, noting that his committee drafted legislation during the 2014 session cracking down on sexually violent predators, including a split sentence extending supervision "so that in the event that any sexually violent predators were released into the wild, we would be monitoring them extremely closely."
Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, also pointed to the low crime rate as a sign the state was on the right track.
"I think it’s a good thing when you have certainty in sentencing," he said.
Bradley said Florida’s recidivism rate is dropping, from just under 33 percent to less than 30 percent. He also pointed to the opening of re-entry centers, such as one that opened last year in Gadsden County. The centers take prisoners from other institutions within three years of their release dates, providing substance-abuse treatment, vocational training and job-readiness instruction.
"But however we do it, the ultimate goal is to make sure that the individuals have tools to succeed in life after they leave from behind the razor wire," Bradley said. "And we’re doing that."
The Pew study maintains that supervised release can cut recidivism and costs, pointing to a study it conducted in New Jersey that found "parolees are less likely be rearrested, reconvicted and re-incarcerated for new crimes than inmates who max out their full prison sentences and are released without supervision. Even when controlling for key risk factors such as age, time served, current offense and criminal history, parolees were 36 percent less likely to return to prison for new crimes within three years of release."
But Judd said he disagrees with Pew’s recommendation that the state carve out a community-supervision period from inmate prison terms.
"I don’t think we need to spend the extra money," he said. "I think the 85 percent is benevolent, because they should serve 100 percent. I do believe in re-entry, but those training programs and the re-entry programs must occur while they’re in prison."
Gaetz agreed, saying the state is providing re-entry preparation on its own terms.
"In Florida, we believe that those re-entry services ought to be offered inside the walls of the state prison, not in some halfway house or provisional release program, to the same frequency that other states use those tools," he said.
But DeFoor of the Project on Accountable Justice called the Pew study "the opening salvo of the world changing for criminal justice," predicting that the system would become increasingly data-driven.
"They’re not used to people coming in and saying, 'This is how you’re performing,' " DeFoor said. "But it got too big to be allowed not to be measured."