~Seven Decades of Service to the State~
In the early 1800’s, state prisoners were leased to Florida companies where they were often worked as slave labor. This era of inhumane and bitter treatment of prisoners ended after the notorious Taber case. Martin Taber was a young prisoner convicted of stealing a ride on a freight train. He died as a result of the brutal treatment administered by a lumber company boss to whom he was leased. An aroused public demanded the discontinuance of leasing prisoners, but prison overcrowding, the high cost of housing, and pressures for better treatment of prisoners set the stage for opportunists to peddle their influence in the pardoning of prisoners.
The Pardon Board created by the 1885 Constitution and composed of the Governor and Cabinet, often presided over 200 pardon applications in one day. This resulted in hurried or capricious release procedures by overburdened officials. The weakness of the pardon system led in 1941 to the formation of the Florida Parole and Probation Commission.
The Commission selected sentenced inmates for parole release and its field staff provided parole and probation supervision. The responsibilities were not altered until reorganization in 1975, which transferred the field officers and supervision responsibilities to the Department of Corrections. As a result of the transfer, the positions with the Commission were reduced from 1,321 to 155.
In 1978, the Florida Legislature enacted the Objective Parole Guidelines Act, which required the Commission to develop and implement rules and criteria upon which parole decisions were to be made. It required the development of guidelines according to an acceptable research method based on the seriousness of the offense and the likelihood of favorable parole outcome. The Act also provided for reorganization of the agency into functional areas.
Following a study of the disparity in sentencing within the state court system, Sentencing Guidelines became effective October 1, 1983. Under Sentencing Guidelines, the Commission retained paroling authority only for inmates whose offenses were committed prior to October 1, 1983. The “sunset” of the Parole Commission adopted that year during the Legislative session, and later extended, was repealed a decade later.
In the 1988 Legislative Session, the Victim Assistance Law brought many new responsibilities to the Commission. This law provided that the victim, or family of the victim, have the opportunity to provide input into the decision-making process. Further, the Conditional Release Program was enacted and amended the following year pursuant to s. 947.1405, Florida Statutes. This program provides that inmates convicted of certain crimes committed on or after October 1, 1988, and who have served at least one prior felony commitment, or have been sentenced as a habitual offender, shall be released under supervision on their expiration date subject to specified terms and conditions established by the Commission.
Changes have affected the Commission since its inception. One of the most significant changes in the Commission’s role was the creation of the Control Release Authority in 1989 by the Florida Legislature. This legislation directed the Commission to develop a system of uniform criteria to determine the number and type of inmates released into the community in order to maintain the state’s prison population between 99% and 100% of its lawful capacity. The Control Release Program became effective September 1, 1990, and over the next four years, 75,000 inmates were released through this program.
In 1992, the Florida Legislature created the Conditional Medical Release Program. This program authorizes the Department of Corrections to recommend to the Commission terminally ill or permanently incapacitated inmates for early release due to their medical conditions. It is the Commission’s responsibility to determine which inmates will be released and the Department of Corrections’ responsibility to supervise the offender in the community.
In 1996, the Commission began reviewing and establishing presumptive parole release dates for inmates convicted of capital felonies with 25-year mandatory minimum terms. These cases are often more complex and involve input from the inmate’s representatives as well as the victim’s families and law enforcement. Since the passage of this law, the number of those reviewed by the Commission has grown steadily.
The 1997 Florida Legislature enacted SB 258, which applies to the setting of subsequent interview dates and the setting of subsequent review dates and allows the Commission the option to change the review time from every two years to every five years. This applies to any inmate convicted of Murder, Attempted Murder, Sexual Battery, Attempted Sexual Battery, or who has been sentenced to a 25-year minimum mandatory sentence previously provided in s. 775.082, Florida Statutes, and who the Commission finds that it is not reasonable to expect that parole will be granted at a hearing in the following years and stating the basis for the finding in writing.
In 1997, the Florida Supreme Court issued its final opinion in the case of Florida Parole Commission v. Cooper regarding the eligibility criteria for releasees. The decision required the Commission to recalculate the maximum post-release supervision date for all conditional releasees.
Also that year a modification was made to the Conditional Release Program to include enhanced terms of supervision for sex offenders, i.e., participation in annual polygraph examinations, prohibitions against operating a motor vehicle or using a post office box, submission to an HIV test, and electronic monitoring when deemed necessary.
In 1998, the Legislature passed the Jimmy Ryce Involuntary Civil Commitment for Sexually Violent Predators’ Treatment and Care Act (Jimmy Ryce Act). This act established legal procedures by which sexually violent predators may be committed to the Department of Children & Family Services for control, care and treatment until such time as the person’s mental abnormality or personality disorder has so changed that the person is safe to be at large. The Commission‘s Victim Services/Release and Revocation Sections worked with the staff of the Department of Corrections (DOC) to assist them in performing their duties under the law by providing DOC with information to assist in fulfilling their notification responsibilities.
In 2001, the Legislature created the Addiction Recovery Supervision Program and placed it under the Commission’s administration. This program requires mandatory post prison supervision for offenders, released from a state correctional facility, which are convicted of a crime committed on or after July 1, 2001, and have a history of substance abuse addiction, or have participated in any drug treatment, and have not been convicted of a disqualifying offense. The law requires the Commission to set the terms and conditions of supervision, and to revoke that supervision if the offender fails to abide by the conditions of supervision. The program is fully operational and the first offender eligible for the program was released from prison in June 2002. In that the number of eligible offenders is increasing, the Commission has requested additional staffing to handle the workload and will work with the Legislature to assure adequate funding. The Commission continues to closely monitor this program.
The General Appropriations Act for FY 2002-03 authorized fourteen additional Parole Examiner positions to help in reducing the backlog of pending clemency cases. The following year, four of these positions were deleted, but the additional ten allowed the Commission to significantly reduce the pending caseload in clemency. That year, the Mail Room, Supply, Accounting, and Computer Help Desk functions of the Commission’s Division of Administrative Services were transferred to the Department of Corrections.
In June 2004, Governor Bush praised the Commission and the Department of Corrections for their efforts in completing the review of 124,000 “lawsuit” clemency cases and in reducing the backlog of restoration of civil rights cases. “Lawsuit” cases were cases forwarded by the Department of Corrections to the clemency office for review as part of an agreement with the ACLU, the Department of Corrections, and other parties. These reductions were accomplished due to a monumental effort by Commission staff and a new streamlined application process, which included electronic applications submitted by the DOC for individuals terminating supervision and ending prison terms. Governor Bush further noted, “As of June 1, 2004, the team has completed its work on 80% of these cases.”
While the lawsuit cases have now been eliminated, the pending “restoration of civil rights cases with a hearing” continues to grow. To address this issue, the Commission continues to seek additional funding for parole examiner positions to handle the full investigations required by these cases.
During the 2005 Legislative Session, a corrections bill (HB 1899) was amended on the floor of the House, which would have abolished the Commission and transferred its functions and duties among the Courts, the Department of Corrections, and the Office of the Attorney General in FY 2005-06. Under the amended bill, regional parole boards would have been located around the state and the boards would be comprised of volunteer commissioners. While this bill passed the House, the bill was never heard in the Senate and died in the Senate Committee on Ways and Means. However, as a result of this action, the General Appropriations Act of 2005 ordered an Office of Program Policy and Governmental Accountability (OPPAGA) study of the Commission during the interim period prior to the 2006 Session and asked that OPPAGA report their findings to the respective Chairs of the House Appropriations Committee and the Senate Ways and Means Committee on or before January 1, 2006.
In December 2005 and February 2006, the staff of the Office of Program Policy and Accountability presented its findings to the respective legislative fiscal committees in the Senate and House on their FY 2005-06 study of the Parole Commission. The OPPAGA study concluded “the Parole Commission Operations [are] consistent with its mission” and stated that “regionalizing the commission’s parole determinations function would distribute this workload across the state” but would result in increased overall state costs. OPPAGA found that the Commission is successful in identifying low risk offenders for release.
The 2006 Legislative Session again saw the introduction of HB 5017 by the House Fiscal Council, a corrections-related bill which included language to abolish the Commission and transfer its duties to the courts and other agencies in FY 2006-07. The Senate showed its tremendous support for the Commission by deleting the language from the bill prior to final passage. That same year, the Legislature provided the Commission with additional duties when it gave the Commission the responsibility of investigating seaport security waivers for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement in language included in HB 7415 on seaport security.
On April 5, 2007, Governor Crist and the Cabinet, acting as the Board of Executive Clemency, made significant changes to the Rules of Executive Clemency. These changes greatly expanded the number of ex-felons eligible to have their civil rights restored (RCR). Under the old rules, approximately 26% of offenders were eligible to have their rights restored, based on their crime, for Restoration of Civil Rights without a hearing. The new rules expanded this to 80% eligible for automatic restoration (Level 1), which ensures RCR restoration provided no restitution is owed and there are no pending charges. Initially, cases are reviewed for eligibility, and then placed on an executive order for signature of the Clemency Board. Once the order is signed, certificates are mailed to the persons granted restoration of civil rights. Level 2 cases require a short investigation, but are also RCR without a hearing. A Level 3 case requires a hearing and is for the most serious offenses such as murder, sexual battery, or sexual predators. These persons must go through a full investigation and a hearing before the Board in order to be considered for restoration of civil rights.
In the 2007 Legislative Session, State Senator Frederica Wilson earmarked a $50,000 one–time appropriation beginning July 1, 2007, to fund restoration of civil rights’ outreach efforts. This funding was provided to enhance the policy changes implemented by the Governor and Clemency Board on April 5th and to allow the Commission to inform as many ex-offenders as possible of the new automatic RCR eligibility rules.
The 2008 Legislative Session saw the introduction of HB 5075 by the House Safety and Security Council. The bill, while not abolishing the Commission, proposed renaming the Commission as the “Parole Board” and transferred its funding and positions to the Department of Corrections. While it passed the House of Representatives, the Florida Senate referred it to a budget conference where the issue was resolved within the budget negotiation process. While the Commission remained intact as an independent state agency, the Commission lost $2 million in funding and 17 full time employees were laid off.
The 2009 Florida Legislature authorized the transfer of computing resources from the Florida Parole Commission to the Florida Department of Corrections. Specifically, this proposal was successfully adopted as part of the passage of SB 2600, the 2009-10 General Appropriations Act, and Committee Substitute for Senate Bill SB 2574, the Agency for Enterprise Technology legislation. These bills authorized the transfer of all computing resources effective July 1, 2009.
The 2010 Session of the Florida Legislature was plagued with budget challenges brought on by the continuing downturn in Florida’s economy. Due to these constraints the Commission received a continuation budget for FRY 2010-11 of $8.2 million and 128 FTEs. During the 2010 Florida Legislative Session, SB 200, a victim-friendly bill sponsored by Senators Carey Baker and John Thrasher, was passed and became law on July 1, 2010 (Chapter No. 2010-95.) A Commission legislative priority, the new law (Chapter No. 2010-95, Laws of Florida) amended ss. 947.16, 947.174, and 947.1745, F.S., giving the commission authority to increase the interval between parole consideration re-interviews to 7 years for parole-eligible offenders who have been convicted of murder, attempted murder, sexual battery, or attempted sexual battery, or who are serving a 25-year minimum mandatory sentence under s. 775.082, F.S. For victims and their families, reduction of the frequency of an opportunity for parole should lessen the trauma, stress, and financial burden associated with the potential release of an offender.