MANATEE COUNTY, Fla. — Eighteen states and the District of Columbia require prisoners to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences. 

Florida is one of them.

It's called the "Truth in Sentencing" law, and Manatee County Sheriff Rick Wells says it's critical to maintaining law and order.

“If you go back into the early 90s and 80s before the 85 percent rule was put in place, the crime rate was out of control in the state of Florida,” Wells said.

Now, rules could be changing. Florida lawmakers are considering reducing it to 65 percent for non-violent offenders.

“For most individuals that would mean a change in sentence between three and six months if they do everything right in prison,” Senator Jeff Brandes said. “So, they don’t get any disciplinary reports, if they participate in programming, if they go to drug treatment, if they learn skills in a job, those are the types of things that would allow you to get down to 65 percent.”

St. Petersburg Republican Senator Jeff Brandes, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, is sponsoring SB 572 to reduce the 85 percent law to 65 percent for non-violent offenders.

“What we know is Florida prisons are terrible places that largely create trauma for the people that go there,” Brandes said. “And mixing non-violent individuals with violent individuals and leaving them there with no programming, with a ton of idle time and the abuses that occur in our Florida prisons system creates individuals who are more apt to do crime in the future.”

Manatee County’s Sheriff Rick Wells is leading an effort against sentencing reduction, along with the Florida Sheriffs Association to stop the change.

“That would be a huge issue,” Sheriff Rick Wells said. “We believe it would increase crime going on in our community because they would be coming back.”

Senator Brandes largely disagrees.

“There there’s no evidence to suggest that,” Brandes said. 

“Many states have a 65 percent rule or parole and are at a multi-decade crime low. So not only does the evidence not support his position, but the evidence actually supports ours.”

Sheriff Wells is teaming up with more than 30 Florida sheriffs to launch a research institute that proves their side. They are collecting statistics that show why reducing prison terms would harm our communities. Wells says people need to realize that criminals who get sentenced to hard time really do deserve the time they spend in prison.

“You have to commit a lot of crime and score a lot of points to even reach that point where you are sentenced to the department of corrections,” Wells said.

Wells believes the old adage about doing crime and serving time.

“They’ve already done enough to put them in that position, and they should be held accountable and they should have to serve the time that they were given and to reduce that to me it’s just not right,” Wells said.

Wells says reducing prison sentences is also an injustice.

“We really believe that it’s a slap in the face to the victims of crime,” Wells said. “Victims should feel secure knowing that when they are a victim of a crime, that person is held accountable and is serving 85% of their sentence. Realistically it should be 100 percent.”

Sheriff Wells says since “Truth in Sentencing” was enacted, Florida has seen a 67 percent drop in the rate of crimes.

“This is not by accident; this is because criminals are doing their time,” Wells said.

Senator Brandes wants to emphasize that this change he’s proposing is for only non-violent offenders. Wells says he and the Florida Sheriffs Association do not believe that's the legislation's ultimate goal.

“If you look at the definition, that they don’t give you, in that bill of non-violent offenders there are still drug offenses, there are sexual battery offenses,” Wells said.

“Anyone who says that a drug trafficker is not violent has never spent time in our community and witnessed what drugs do to people that are addicted. They also haven’t witnessed the territory issues that drug dealers have with each other and the crimes that come from that.”

The bill also aims to reduce the state's prison population. Estimates show the bill could take more than 9,000 people out of prison by the year 2023-24.

“The legislators have not been really kind to the department of corrections. They haven’t funded it properly, they are having issues there with their prisons themselves, they need a lot of work,” Wells said.

He says there are not a lot of programs in place to help with recidivism, which he believes there should be.

"I just think that they’re trying to save money by releasing people that should be in prison,” Wells said.

Senator Brandes says passing SB 572 will save the state millions in order to fix the problems in the prison system.

“Our plan would be to put more programs in, to pay our corrections officers a fair wage and to work to incentivize through proven strategies things that are shown to reduce crime,” Brandes said.

He says our department of corrections is in crisis and something needs to change.

“This change in law would allow us to save up to $850 million over five years and reinvest back into programs and policies that reduce crime,” Brandes said. “For example, more programming, more reduction in inmate idleness, more vocational skills training and more law enforcement officers on the streets.”

He says by spending the resources wisely while prisoners are incarcerated will ensure they re-enter society as productive citizens.

“Today, we provide them 50 bucks and a bus pass and there’s no data that supports that is an appropriate way to release somebody back into society,” Brandes said.

Sheriff Wells says this bill needs to be stopped from passing. He says it's bad for crime across Florida, and right here in Manatee County.

“We’ve been very fortunate in the last 11 years to have a decrease in crime,” Wells said. “That will be very difficult to do if these felons are being released early, coming back into our community and picking up where they left off.”

Wells says he's not going to stop until the bill is thrown out.

“We are going to give them the hard facts and we do believe that the legislators will hear our concerns and vote this bill out,” Wells said.

“We are waiting for the sheriffs or other law-enforcement groups to provide us ideas to help make the unsustainable department of corrections sustainable and to provide more ideas to reduce crime and make our street safer,” Brandes said.

Until then, Senator Brandes says the bill will continue to make its way through the Senate and then they will begin the conversation in the House.

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