Florida Update from The Inside Parole in Florida: Hope or False Hope?
by David M. Reutter
For over 4,200 Florida prisoners, the only hope of release from prison is a grant of parole. Most of those prisoners were sentenced as capital offenders, which under the sentencing scheme in effect at the time they committed their crime mandated a sentence of life with eligibility for parole after 25 years. As their mandatories expired, many feel that the hope of parole is nothing other than false hope.
In 1983, Florida eliminated parole for all offenses except capital felonies, which consist of offenses of first-degree murder and sexual battery on a child 12 or younger. The Florida Legislature eliminated parole for capital felonies effective October 1, 1995. That means that as of October 2020 the last Florida prisoners sentenced to a parole-eligible sentence had completed the mandatory portion of their sentence and entered the realm of hoping they will someday be granted the grace of parole.
Once a prisoner becomes eligible for parole, the Florida Commission on Offender Review (FCOR) obtains jurisdiction to set a Presumptive Parole Release Date (PPRD) and decides if that date will become effective.
The parole process does not operate as many imagine.
FCOR has three commissioners who make the ultimate decisions, but they never personally interview or speak to the prisoner. Prisoners, instead, are interviewed by a parole examiner, who makes a non-binding recommendation to the commissioners. The interviewer reviews the prisoner’s pre- or post-sentence report to understand the details of the crime(s) and the classification file compiled by prison officials. The prisoner’s entire prison record is scrutinized, which includes the disciplinary record (DRs), programs taken and completed, educational or vocational achievements, and job assignments. Notably, the interviewer does not speak to housing guards or work supervisors about the prisoner.
The interview with the prisoner is usually 20 minutes or less. The questions asked of the prisoner vary, but they typically include the prisoner’s view of his crime and what he would say to the commissioners if given the opportunity. The prisoner can submit a parole plan. A good plan includes several options for housing, a resume, a goal outline, a letter to the commissioners, and an outline of program participation and other achievements.
Within 90 days, FCOR holds a hearing. The prisoner’s supporters have 10 minutes total to speak. The victims or a victim’s advocate and the state attorney also are given an opportunity to speak. The commissioners then render their decision, and the prisoner is sent the decision by mail.
Those who have attended such hearings report that they have seen victim opposition come from family members who were not even alive when the crime was committed. Assistant state attorneys fresh out of law school attend to speak of the atrocity of the crime and the prisoner’s unsuitability for parole despite having no knowledge of the prisoner’s prison record.
In prisoner Clay Boyer’s case, a judge submitted a judicial objection to parole that stated she had no knowledge of the case but opposed parole in all murder cases. Under FCOR rules, a judicial objection halts a grant of parole. It is well known that if you have opposition at your parole hearing, the chances of parole are slim to none.
My sister and father said the commissioners had their heads down and were writing as they spoke. They said that it appeared the outcome was predetermined and that it seemed that anything they said had no impact upon the commissioners.
“The parole process dehumanizes the inmate, not giving them a chance,” said Emily, a South Florida University criminal justice graduate student who completed an internship at the Sumter Correctional Institution Lifers Program. “I do agree that the victim should be able to give their testimony, [but] it is a biased process because other elements regarding the inmate are not considered. A list of DRs and classes taken will never be sufficient information to decide an inmate’s fate.”
To be forthcoming, I must admit that I have a dog in this fight because I was sentenced to life with eligibility for parole after 25 years for an offense of first-degree murder that was committed on July 20, 1988. At my first parole hearing in January 2013, I was given a July 31, 2031 PPRD, recommended to the Lifers Program, and the next interview was scheduled for September 2019.
I completed the two-year Lifers Program, have facilitated the corrective class on criminal personality for six years, worked in the prison print shop doing graphic design for six years, and earned 36 certificates for self-improvement classes or for job-related certifications. At my September 2019 interview, my parole packet included a job offer and three transitional housing options. FCOR in December 2019 cited the certificates as support to reduce my PPRD by three years, which put it at 7/20/2028, and scheduled the next interview for July 2024.
A common complaint amongst parole-eligible prisoners is that they see no clear path to parole. Simply put, they do not know what more they need to do. I am surrounded by guys who have gone a decade or more without a DR, have completed nearly every program available to them, and have made dramatic changes in their thinking and behavior. Many feel the prospect of parole is a dangling carrot. It’s always there, but it can’t be reached.
For prisoners such as myself who have been given a “parolable” date and were sent to a program, to get a small reduction and a half decade set-off is discouraging. You can’t help but wonder if you’re hanging onto false hope. I say I have a parolable date but some have dates such as 2090 or 2141, which means they have no realistic hope of parole.
For well over a decade, nearly every prisoner granted parole by FCOR has been a graduate of the one-year Correctional Transition Program (CTP) at Everglades Correctional Institution. CTP has about a 100 prisoner capacity. FCOR, however, paroles 20 or fewer prisoners, on average, each year. That is less than .05% of all parole-eligible prisoners. Over 90% of all prisoners FCOR parole are successful, and it recently reported a 100% success rate. When failures occur, a technical violation is the most common reason.
Reform is a common refrain for those who have attended FCOR hearings or are subject to its jurisdiction. Emily, the USF intern, said she believed the process is “impaired” and that a job supervisor or guard who works with or watches a prisoner should be more involved in the parole process because “no one knows their threat to society better than those who currently surround them.”
According to statistics compiled by the Florida Department of Corrections and the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Florida’s parole-eligible prisoners have the lowest chance of recommitting crime. Their age, amount of time served, and offenses categories put them in the lowest recidivist percentiles.
The general feeling among Florida’s parole-eligible prisoners is that having remorse for their crimes and making self-improvement is a personal thing. It has nothing to do with being granted the grace of parole. “Parole is like hitting the lottery,” they often say. “Being a better person is for me and my family.”
In recent years, FCOR has recommended prisoners to complete program after program. In some cases, they extend PPRDs based on good behavior and positive program participation. They then recommend another program. Some prisoners have “jumped through all the hoops” and still had their parole date suspended. They hang onto hope and follow a path that hopefully results in them being lucky with FCOR one day. They pray their hope is not false hope.