Mar 4, 2024 - News

Here's what lawmakers are doing about Florida's prison crisis

Illustration of a prison fence with the fence shaped into dollar signs.

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Florida lawmakers are poised to allocate millions of dollars for state prison maintenance that's been put off for decades, but it's just a fraction of what consultants say is needed to fix the crumbling system.

Why it matters: If the Florida Department of Corrections doesn't get a serious influx of cash, "the state will face increasing risks that jeopardize public safety," according to a report by the auditing firm KPMG.

State of play: A Senate budget committee last month approved a spending plan that included $100 million for deferred maintenance. The House budget didn't include that money.

  • But following last week's budget negotiations, Katie Betta, spokesperson for Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, told Axios: "There is agreement on the $100 million."
  • The Legislature must pass a budget before the lawmaking session ends on Friday. Then, it will head to Gov. Ron DeSantis for approval.

Reality check: State prisons need $2.2 billion just for "immediate" fixes, according to the KPMG report.

  • And a total of $6 billion is needed to address maintenance issues at the facilities the prison system currently operates.
  • That doesn't include the millions more needed to add new dorms or new prisons. Consultants recommended the state build at least one new prison and two new hospitals by 2036.

What they're saying: "It may get a little better, but you'll never get ahead," former St. Petersburg Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes, who championed criminal justice reform during his time in the Legislature, told Axios.

  • "There's no larger strategy," said Brandes, who now runs the Florida Policy Project research organization. "Unfortunately, I think something terrible is going to have to happen until there is a wake-up call."

Zoom in: Part of what's driving the need is a projected increase in the prison population. A decline early in the COVID-19 pandemic has turned upward again, Axios Miami's Sommer Brugal reports.

  • The KPMG report expects that increase to continue, with the population expected to grow from about 85,000 to between 107,000 and 124,000 people incarcerated by 2042.

Between the lines: The Legislature has been reluctant to take up reforms that could take pressure off the system, such as diversion programs and geriatric release.

  • Brandes chalks that up to politics. Floridians would rather see money go to bread-and-butter issues like housing, insurance and education.
  • "Nobody gets elected working on criminal justice reform," he said.

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