Florida Could Improve Public Safety and Free Up Valuable Resources Through Major Criminal Justice Reform

Esubalew Dadi
December 2017


Florida should establish a bipartisan, intergovernmental criminal justice task force during the 2018 legislative session to examine the major drivers of prison population growth and costs, and develop evidence-based, data-driven policies to enhance public safety. The task force recommendations would serve as the basis for major criminal justice reform legislation.

Other states have successfully undertaken reform under the Justice Reinvestment Initiative model. Early evidence reveals that under this model, states have reduced their corrections populations and prison costs, saving millions of dollars, while enhancing public safety outcomes.

Florida lawmakers, however, should favorably consider proven reform measures likely to come before them in the coming session, including legislation to amend sentencing laws, while awaiting the more comprehensive results of task force deliberations.

Executive Summary

If lawmakers undertake comprehensive criminal justice reform as laid out in the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, Florida can enhance its public safety outcomes, reduce its high prison population and prison costs and use the resultant budget savings to support evidence-based public safety programs. These services include mental health and substance abuse treatment programs and mandatory post-release supervision for offenders deemed to be at high risk of reoffending.

The Justice Reinvestment Initiative was launched in 2010 by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance and The Pew Charitable Trusts. More than 30 states have engaged in the JRI reform process.

After first establishing a broad-based task force to review the state’s criminal justice system and provide recommendations, JRI states have amended sentencing laws, reformed pretrial practices, modified prison release practices and strengthened community corrections. The reforms are intended to ensure long-term sustainability.

States that have undertaken reforms saw a range of benefits:

  • Missouri projects savings of $875 million from FY 2012 to 2017;
  • Texas saw $1.5 billion in construction savings and $340 million in averted operations costs;
  • Five states that adopted criminal justice reform under the JRI in 2014 and 2015 (Alabama, Idaho, Mississippi, Nebraska and Utah) had combined budget savings or avoided cost projections of over $1.7 billion over two decades; and
  • States were able to reduce recidivism rates and prison populations, while maintaining public safety.

The Florida Policy Institute recommends that state lawmakers:

  • Establish a broad based, intergovernmental task force;
  • Embark on comprehensive data analysis of the state’s criminal justice system;
  • Engage a broad variety of stakeholders so that the reform process and outcomes are effective and sustainable;
  • Address underlying problems that bring people into contact with the criminal justice system, including poverty, mental health and substance use disorder;
  • Ensure that policies enacted are informed by existing data and best practices; and
  • Pass legislation that would increase the state’s felony property theft threshold and permit judges to depart from mandatory minimums for non-violent drug crimes.


This report examines the experiences of states that reformed their criminal justice systems under the JRI model and recommends what Florida can learn from these states.

Staggering and unsustainable prison population growth and costs, accompanied by little or inadequate return on investment, has forced states to look for a cost-effective, data-driven and evidence-based criminal justice reform system. Additionally, prison is an inappropriate forum for some inmates, particularly those with mental health and substance use disorders and, in many cases, elderly inmates.

Fifty-six percent of state prisoners and 64 percent of jail inmates dealt with mental health issues in 2004 and 2002, respectively, with a higher share represented in the nation’s largest prisons and jails systems than in inpatient psychiatric facilities.[1]  Older inmates are found to have higher rates of mental illness than their younger counterparts.[2]

States have also faced massive budget shortfalls as a result of the recession. In most states undertaking reforms, spending on corrections systems contributed to their budget shortfalls prior to their involvement with the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI).[3]

These factors led to the creation of the JRI reform model, which was formally launched in 2010 by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance and The Pew Charitable Trusts. More than 30 states have engaged in the JRI reform process. The broad coalition-based efforts have prioritized prison space only for serious and repeat offenders, improved community supervision for other offenders and reinvested the savings in services that are effective at reducing recidivism and victimization.[4]

Accordingly, this report addresses the following questions:

  • Why have states embarked on major criminal justice reform?
  • How have states started their criminal justice reform process?
  • What type of criminal justice reform policies have JRI states adopted?
  • What does success look like in JRI states?
  • What can Florida learn from JRI states?
  • What should be Florida’s next step?

The report uses 2014[5] and 2017[6] Urban Institute analyses on the experiences of JRI states as main references.

Current Landscape in Florida

Most of the factors that triggered reform in other states are already present in Florida. However, state leaders have not yet undertaken the level of evaluation required to make the criminal justice system cost-effective and responsive to public safety needs. A 2016 report by Florida’s Government Efficiency Task Force noted that Florida’s prison population is the third highest in the nation, with nearly 100,000 inmates, at a cost of more than $2.4 billion in FY 2016. These expenditures represent approximately half of the total $4.9 billion appropriated for the state’s criminal and civil justice systems.[7] A recent report by the Crime and Justice Institute, commissioned by the Florida Legislature, revealed the following[8]:

  • Over the last decade, Florida’s violent and property crime rates and drug arrests have all dropped approximately 30 percent, although the total crime rate remains 15 percent higher than the national average. In the same period, the average sentence length increased 22 percent, balancing out the admissions decline and leading to a mostly stable prison population.
  • Due to mandatory minimum sentences, sentence enhancements and statutory time served requirements, prisoners in Florida serve significantly longer periods in prison than in other states, including for nonviolent crimes.
  • Long sentences and few release options are the main drivers of elderly population growth in Florida’s prisons.
  • Most offenders leave prison with little or no post-prison release supervision.

In 2015, only 11 states had a higher incarceration rate than Florida.[9]  Florida’s average period of incarceration is also one of the highest in the nation, with a 166 percent increase between 1990 and 2009, the largest of all the reporting states.[10]

From 2006 to 2015, the number of Florida’s elderly inmates (age 50 and older) increased by 93.4 percent. These inmates are projected to constitute a significant share of the state’s prison population in coming years, according to the 2014-15 Annual Report of the Florida Department of Corrections.[11] Florida’s Correctional Medical Authority noted that the continued growth of elderly inmates in Florida’s prison system would have a significant impact on the health care delivery system and expenditures[12], consuming a disproportionate share of the health care costs relative to younger inmates.

“In 2015, only 11 states had a higher incarceration rate than Florida.”

Florida is not immune from budget shortfalls, which have prevented the state from adequately investing in foundational health, education and economic growth initiatives.[13] Even though there is no evidence that budget shortfalls were caused by the spending on corrections, the existing expensive and unsustainable spending on the prison system would only worsen any future budget deficits.

Florida’s prison system exhibits similar characteristics to states in the JRI initiative. These include: high incarceration rates; mandatory minimums, particularly for lower level, non-serious, non-violent drug and property crime offenders; and lengthy prison sentences.[14] In response, JRI states adopted policies to address these issues.

The Florida Legislature did not pass[15] Senate Bill 485[16] nor House Bill 387[17] in 2017, which would have established a bipartisan, multi-stakeholder task force to conduct a comprehensive review of the state criminal justice system.

Why Have States Embarked on Major Criminal Justice Reform?

For decades, states have experienced growing prison populations and costs, while the return on investment has not been commensurate with ultimate public safety outcomes, particularly reducing recidivism rates and victimization. Between 1972 and 2011 state prison population rose by 700 percent and corrections costs increased dramatically;[18] by 2012, states were spending more than $51 billion annually on corrections.[19]

JRI states in particular experienced significant growth in their prison populations from 2008 to 2011. During this period, the national population grew by 14.7 percent while JRI states, on average, experienced growth of 24.7 percent in their prison population.

The states’ corrections costs were rising in lockstep with prison population growth, spending millions or billions of dollars each year on ever-expanding corrections systems, with little or no demonstrable improvement in public safety outcomes. Georgia, for example, spent $492 million on its corrections system in 1990 and over $1 billion in FY 2012.

In 2009, a year before reform began, budget shortfalls in JRI states ranged from $107 million in Arkansas to $5 billion in North Carolina. In Louisiana, North Carolina, Georgia and Oregon, budget shortfalls made up approximately one-quarter of the states’ overall budgets, and spending on corrections contributed to deficits in these and other JRI states.

Finally, despite a heavy reliance on incarceration and a huge increase in prison spending for decades, half of the inmates who left state prisons in 2005 were back behind bars within three years for committing a new crime or violating the conditions of their release.[20]

How Have States Started Their Criminal Justice Reform Process?

States involved with the JRI started their criminal justice reform efforts by establishing multi-stakeholder task forces that included: the governor’s office, the attorney general’s office, the state Legislature, state law enforcement, local law enforcement, state department of corrections, representatives from Department of Homeland Security, sheriffs, prosecutors and members of judges’ associations, along with victims’ advocates, business leaders, nonprofits and private foundations. The task force first conducts a comprehensive review of the state’s criminal justice system to identify the drivers of prison population growth and prison costs and then provides recommendations for more effective policies to enhance public safety.

In Kentucky, a seven-member task force traveled across the state in an intentional campaign that engaged stakeholders, built coalitions and built momentum for reform. In South Carolina, everyone was invited to the table: police, prosecutors, the judiciary, probation, correction and interest groups, and all were made part of the solution, resulting in a consensus bill.

What Type of Criminal Justice Policies Have JRI States Adopted?

Even though each state’s criminal justice system and the challenges it faces are unique, JRI states have adopted five major categories of policy reforms[21] to address the drivers of the prison population and prison costs, each of which are informed by data-driven and evidence-based practices.

Specifically, evidence-based policies include: risk and needs assessments to inform decisions about detention, incarceration and release conditions; expansion of earned credits for good behavior and earned time credits; community-based treatment programs and sentencing changes; and departure mechanisms, including reclassifying and redefining offenses, revising mandatory minimums and expanding non-incarceration options.

Amending sentencing laws

More than half of JRI states enacted reforms to divert people who commit less serious offenses away from prison or shorten the length of time they spend incarcerated. States adjusted penalties for certain drug and property offenses and lower-level violent or person crimes (typically downgrading lesser offenses), repealed mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes, revised sentencing enhancements and created or expanded alternative sentencing options such as mental health treatment and other diversion services.

For example:

  • South Carolina, Nebraska and Alaska raised their felony theft threshold amount from $1,000 to $2,000, $500 to $1,500, and $750 to $1,000, respectively.
  • Utah reclassified drug possession offenses for all drug types, converting first and second convictions from felonies (with penalties of up to five years in prison) to Class A misdemeanors (maximum penalty of one year in jail).
  • Maryland passed legislation repealing mandatory minimum sentences for all drug offenses (except volume dealing) that authorized people serving a mandatory minimum drug sentence to apply for a sentence reduction.

Reforming pretrial practices

States are increasingly using risk assessment tools to reserve detention only for those at high risk of failing to appear in court. States are also improving their pretrial supervision practices by reducing their reliance on monetary bonds, which disproportionately affect poor people and communities of color, and expanding law enforcement use of civil citations instead of arrest.

Kentucky and Alaska reformed their pretrial systems by introducing reforms intended to ensure risk-based decision-making and appropriate pretrial supervision to reduce reliance on bail bonds.

Modifying prison release practices

 One way in which the JRI has helped states is through the use of rigorous data analysis to examine their respective criminal justice systems. Many states learned that the average length of stay in their prison systems had increased over the previous decade, triggering the adoption of a range of policy reforms. These include: expanding the types of offenses eligible for parole, increasing the availability of earned time credits that allow for shorter sentences through good behavior or program completion, establishing presumptive parole for certain inmates, establishing or expanding geriatric and medical parole and requiring the use of risk assessment tools and structured parole guidelines to inform release decisions.

For example:

  • Alaska expanded discretionary parole to nearly all people in prison not convicted of Class A or unclassified sex offenses or first-degree murder.
  • Louisiana made people convicted of a second nonviolent offense eligible for parole after serving just 33 percent of their sentence (previously 50 percent).
  • Mississippi enacted a geriatric parole provision that automatically grants parole hearings to certain people age 60 or older who have served at least 10 years in prison.
  • South Carolina enacted a law to make people eligible for release if the parole board deems them “terminally ill” or “permanently incapacitated” or if they are age 70 or older.

Strengthening community corrections

Strengthening the use of community supervision practices is one of the pillars of JRI policy efforts in many states, a clear testament that community programming and services can reduce recidivism. States have taken a number of steps to shore up community supervision practices by enacting laws that: mandate and strengthen reentry supervision; require the use of risk and needs instruments to guide supervision decisions; expand access to treatment and services; establish intermediate responses to supervision violations and earned discharge from supervision; and limit how much time people can spend behind bars for violating supervision rules.

Kentucky mandated supervision for all people released from prison and carved that time out of prison for most of them, resulting in a reduced recidivism rate and significant budget savings.

Idaho provided resources to train parole and probation officers in evidence-based practices, including dealing with substance use disorders.

Ensuring sustainability of reform

Making sure that a policy achieves the expected outcome requires consistent review and oversight of reform processes and successes, including potential challenges in implementation. Many states recognized this and established sustainability initiatives such as fiscal impact statements and data collection and reporting requirements on key performance metrics, including the creation of an oversight council.

Mississippi and South Carolina mandated fiscal impact assessments for legislation that could impact the prison population or create or amend a criminal offense.

What Does Success Look Like in JRI States?

By passing a combination of the policies mentioned above, states involved in the JRI reform efforts were able to see some tangible gains. Most of the JRI states are in the early implementation phase of the reforms, thus the long-term effects are not yet fully realized in terms of reduced prison populations and costs or public safety outcomes. Nonetheless, preliminary results reveal that demonstrable and very promising successes have been registered in most of the states.

Prison population reduction

The 2015 prison populations in more than half of JRI states were below previously projected levels.[22]

States projecting a reduction in the total incarcerated population expect the decrease to range from 0.6 percent to 19 percent. For example:

  • Kentucky projected an 18 percent reduction over 10 years (FY 2010 – 2020).
  • Hawaii projected a 14 percent decrease in its prison population over six years (FY 2012 – 2018) with a 4 percent reduction already realized between June 2012 and June 2013).
  • North Carolina estimated an 8 percent reduction over a six-year period (FY 2011 – 2017).
  • Delaware projected a 10 percent decrease over 5 years (FY 2012 – 2017).

“The 2015 prison populations in more than half of JRI states were below previously projected levels.”

The states that do not project a decrease in prison population expect to slow incarcerated population growth, ranging from five percentage points in Kansas over five years (FY 2013 – 2018) to 21 percentage points in Arkansas over 11 years (FY 2009 – 2020).

Prison cost reduction (projections)

Total projected savings amount to as much as $4.6 billion. Projected budget savings vary across states and time periods, ranging from $7.7 million (over five years, FY 2012 – 2017) in Missouri to $875 million (over 11 years, FY 2009 – 2020) in Arkansas. Texas’s JRI reforms alone resulted in $1.5 billion in construction savings and $340 million annually in averted operations costs.[23] Other states such as Ohio project $578 million over four years (FY 2011 – 2015). North Carolina projects savings of $560 million over six years (FY 2011-2017) and Georgia projects savings of $264 million over a five-year period (FY 2012-17).

Five states adopted criminal justice reforms under the JRI in 2014 and 2015 — Alabama, Idaho, Mississippi, Nebraska and Utah — with combined budget savings/avoided costs projection of more than $1.7 billion over the next two decades.[24] Through 2016, 12 states reported a total of $1.1 billion in savings or averted costs as a result of reform measures, ranging from $2.5 million over three years in Hawaii to more than $490 million over five years in South Carolina.[25]

Savings reinvestment

In addition to helping states reduce their prison populations and costs, the JRI model enabled states to identify and generate budget savings that could be reinvested in areas to better address the needs of incarcerated populations such as mental health and substance abuse services.  States’ reinvestment has taken two forms: reinvestment of actual savings and upfront investment, which is tied to projected savings.

Reinvestment of actual savings occurs when states track avoided justice spending and reinvest those savings, which requires a waiting period for savings to be realized before investment in other programs can occur. In some cases, states proactively fund programs on the basis of projected future savings, addressing the time lag between policy development and realization of savings.

Nearly $166 million has been reinvested so far ($142 million up front and $24 million in reinvestment of actual savings).[26] The savings are generated from a number of reforms including prison operating costs, averting spending on new prison construction and streamlining justice system operations. Because JRI states are still in the early stages of the reform process, more reinvestment could be expected once the reforms yield savings.

Texas, one of the first states to join the JRI, invested $241 million to expand treatment programs and diversion alternatives in the probation and parole system. This investment resulted in a net savings of $443.9 million in its FY 2008-09 budget by reducing funding for contracted bed space and canceling funding for the construction of new prison units originally proposed.[27]

Recidivism rate reduction

Many of the reforms enacted through the JRI have included policies intended to reduce recidivism for those released from incarceration, which pushes the expected positive impact of these reforms even further into the future.[28] Depending on the length of the measurement period, the updated calculation of recidivism rates could take several years. Nonetheless, certain types of prison alternatives and evidence-based practices such as the use of risk and needs assessments yielded a reduction in recidivism rates.

In 2007, Louisiana instituted a 90-day incarceration limit on first-time revocations for violation of supervision rules, and after five years the law resulted in reduction of the average length of such confinement by 9.2 months, as well as a 27 percent decline in returns to custody for new crimes, falling from 7.9 to 6.2 percent.[29]

What Can Florida Learn from JRI States?

There is no one-size-fits all approach to the reforms. Florida’s criminal justice system and its unique challenges warrant a state-specific remedy.  To that end, there is a great deal the state can and should learn from the experiences of JRI states who have seen tangible progress in reducing their prison populations and costs, enhancing public safety outcomes and reinvesting these savings into effective rehabilitation programs.

Florida lawmakers should:

  • Establish a broad based, intergovernmental task force that includes community stakeholders such as district attorneys, public defenders, defense attorneys, business representatives, behavioral health and substance abuse treatment providers and advocacy groups. The task force should produce a report that incorporates:
  • An analysis of 10-year data including arrests, convictions, offender attributes, jail and prison admissions, length of stay and release data, probation and parole revocations and outcome measures for current programs.
  • An analysis of factors that result in incarceration including poverty, mental health, and substance dependence.
  • Policy recommendations based on the analyses that are intended to identify productive alternatives to incarceration, align the duration of incarceration to offense and threat to public safety, determine interventions that support offender success during and after probation and identify proactive interventions that reduce the rate of criminal activity within communities.
  • A fiscal analysis through which current criminal justice expenditures are compared with projected expenditures and savings based on implementation of the policy recommendations. The analysis will identify specific reinvestment recommendations for projected savings that result in reduced criminal activity, incarceration, and safer communities.
  • Enact legislation that implements the recommendations of the task force and redistribute criminal justice funding as needed to implement the recommendations with fidelity.
  • Enact legislation that reflects proven measures such as sentencing reform and increase in thresholds for felony theft convictions at its earliest opportunity.


Reforming Florida’s criminal justice system is long overdue. State lawmakers should pass legislation to establish a criminal justice task force during the 2018 legislative session and implement evidence-based reforms that have proven effective in JRI states. This would allow Florida the opportunity to examine the criminal justice system, including drivers of prison population growth such as mandatory minimums and extended length of stay, along with the attendant prison costs. It would also offer the Legislature ample time to lay the groundwork for the passage of a comprehensive criminal justice reform bill.

State legislators, however, should not delay in amending criminal justice laws in 2018 where reforms proven successful in other JRI states are relevant. Specifically, the Florida House and Senate should pass legislation that would increase the state’s property felony theft threshold and permit judges to depart from mandatory minimums for non-violent drug crimes.

Unless the state takes bold action to conduct major criminal justice reform, each passing year will entail significant cost with little or insufficient return on investment for public safety. If we factor in the many collateral consequences for children and families of incarcerated parents and failure to adequately fund mental health and substance abuse services, the cost of doing nothing would be incalculably high.

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[1] Kim, Kodak et al. 2015. The Processing and Treatment of Mentally Ill Persons in the Criminal Justice System, A Scan of Practice and Background Analysis. p. 8. Urban Institute

[2] Ibid p. 10

[3] La Vigne, Nancy et al. 2017. Reforming Sentencing and Corrections Policy, The Experience of Justice Reinvestment Initiative States. Urban Institute, p. 7

[4] Lawrence, Alison. 2016. Justice Reinvestment: States Tackle Prison Reform. National Conference of State Legislatures.

[5] La Vigne, Nancy et al. 2014. Justice Reinvestment Initiative State Assessment Report. p. 5 Urban Institute and Bureau of Justice Assistance.

[6] Supra note at 3

[7] Alexander, John R. and Rep. Daniel D. Raulerson. 2016. Florida Government Efficiency Task Force. Final Report

[8] Rose, Felicity et al. 2017. An Examination of Florida’s Prison Population Trends. Crime and Justice Institute

[9] Dadi, Esubalew. 2017. Florida’s High Rate of Adult Incarceration Ranks 39th in the Nation. Florida Policy Institute

[10] The Pew Charitable Trusts. 2012.  Time Served, The High Cost, Low Return of Longer Prison Term.

[11] Florida Department of Corrections.  Annual Report Fiscal Year 2014-2015. p. 33

[12] Florida Correctional Medical Authority. 2013-2014 Annual Report and Report on Elderly Offenders, p. 34.

[13] Singh, Dhanraj. 2017. What’s Keeping Florida From Investing in Needed Public Services? Florida Policy Institute

[14] Rose, Felicity et al. 2017. An Examination of Florida’s Prison Population Trends. Crime and Justice Institute

[15] Dadi, Esubalew. 2017. Florida Legislature Misses Opportunity to Reform the State Criminal Justice System. Florida Policy Institute

[16] Florida Senate. 2017. SB-458, Florida Criminal Justice Reform Task Force. Florida Legislature

[17] Florida House of Representatives. 2017. HB-387, Florida Criminal Justice Reform Task Force. Florida Legislature

[18] LaVigne, Nancy et al. 2014. Justice Reinvestment Initiative State Assessment Report. p. 5 Urban Institute and Bureau of Justice Assistance

[19] Ibid, p. 5

[20] The Pew Charitable Trusts. 2017. State Reforms Reverse Decades of Incarceration Growth, Policies have reduced prison populations, expanded prison alternatives, protected public safety. p. 3

[21] Supra note at 3, p. VI

[22] ibid

[23] Council of State Governments Justice Center. 2013. Lessons from the States: Reducing Recidivism and Curbing Corrections Costs Through Justice Reinvestment.

[24] supra note at 14

[25] Supra note at 3, p. 41

[26] Supra note at 5, pp. 1-4

[27] Fabelo, Tony. 2010. Texas Justice Reinvestment: Be More Like Texas? SAGE Journals.

[28] Supra note at 3, p. 37

[29] Supra note at 20, p. 10