Florida's Prison Population Rose by 14 Percent From 2000 to 2015 Despite Reforms

The Dade Correctional Institution in South Miami-Dade.
The Dade Correctional Institution in South Miami-Dade. Dade Correctional Institution via Wikimedia Commons
Since 2000, Florida has cut its jail admissions rates, pretrial detention populations, and prison admission rates by a huge margin. The state's urban communities have slightly decreased their arrest and imprisonment rates and slowly (very slowly) tried to become less arrest-happy.

Yet, according to a new report from the Vera Institute of Justice, the state's total prison population increased from the years 2000 to 2015 thanks in part to a surge in long prison sentences. The Vera Institute's data set aims to show that even though many states are trying to scale back their massive antidrug task forces, other issues have slowed the nation's move to imprison fewer people.

"At a glance, prison populations have declined in half of the states," Vera writes. "Coupled with headlines that the U.S. incarceration rate continues to fall, this trend has given rise to claims of early victories. But when one digs deeper, exploring the complex relationship between local jails and state prisons, it becomes clear that true reform has been more elusive."

In some states, jail populations have increased while prison populations have decreased. In other states, including Florida, the opposite is true. In most areas, major cities are hugely chopping arrest rates while rural communities are instead throwing more people in jail. The report describes Florida as a perfectly baffling case: From 2000 to 2015, jail admissions dropped, the statewide jail population dropped, and the overall rate of prison admissions dropped by nearly a third — but the total number of inmates in state prisons still somehow increased:

In order to demonstrate how this new multi-metric approach reflects incarceration trends in a faster and more functional way than prison population, it is instructive to look to Florida. Prison population seems to tell one story, but all the other metrics point in a different direction. The state’s prison incarceration rate, although in slow decline as of the end of 2017, is up 14 percent overall since 2000. However, jail admissions rates are down 40 percent, pretrial detention rates are down 12 percent, sentenced jail rates are down 24 percent, and prison admissions rates are down 32 percent. In looking for the cause of Florida’s high prison incarceration rate, statistics show that during this time period, the number of people serving 10 years or more in prison doubled, reaching 16.8 percent of the prison population in Florida.44 These long sentences may obscure the other parts of the system that have adopted reforms, and may suggest one area in need of reform in order to meaningfully reduce the state’s prison population. 
In general, the report notes that states are not decreasing prison rates with the same speed that they jacked up arrest rates from 1970 through 2000 when the War on Drugs was in full swing. (Not that it ever really went away.) If the United States, which has the largest prison population in the world by leaps and bounds, continues to let people trickle out of prison at this rate, it will take 149 years to shrink the prison population back to 1970s levels.

Compared to other states, things aren't all bad for Florida. Arkansas and Oklahoma, for example, incarcerated more people by every single metric during that same period. Other states, such as North Dakota, report shrinking "prison population" stats, while their local jail populations have swelled.

The Vera report also chides Florida for what it calls "uneven" reform goals. Despite the fact that most Democrats and Republicans statewide agree that the War on Drugs should be scaled back and the jail population should shrink, Vera noted the state last year passed a new set of draconian punishments that will almost certainly put more opioid users in prison for longer periods. The study notes this change conflicts with city-level initiatives, including the Criminal Mental Health project, which helps keep Miami-Dade residents with serious mental illnesses out of prison.

"Elsewhere, statewide measures are out of step with county-level efforts to reduce incarceration’s footprint. In 2017, the Florida legislature passed HB 477, establishing new mandatory minimum sentences for the possession of fentanyl and its derivatives," the report reads. "Meanwhile, Miami-Dade County’s Criminal Mental Health Project continues to serve as a national model for pre- and post-booking diversion of people with serious mental illnesses (SMI) or co-occurring SMI and substance use disorders into community-based treatment and support services."
Vera Institute of Justice
Rural and urban communities also seem to be in conflict with one another. While Florida's largest urban communities reduced prison admissions 20 percent from 2000 to 2013, the state's rural communities increased prison admissions by 45 percent.

"The aim of this report is not to throw cold water on reform, but rather to add fuel to the fire," the report reads. "Ultimately, the United States cannot unwind mass incarceration if reformers remain fixated on state-level trends and solutions. The numbers show that ending mass incarceration requires reform everywhere: in states and in counties, in prisons and in jails."
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.