Probation is intended to provide a more constructive alternative to incarceration by rehabilitating low-risk criminal offenders in their communities. But in Florida, minor technical violations of probation send many probationers to incarceration each year—even if they haven’t committed a new crime.
Punishing small matters, such as missing a meeting, with incarceration is out of proportion and helps neither the offender nor society because disproportionate sanctions for technical violations do not improve public safety and waste precious taxpayer dollars.
Fortunately, the Florida state legislature unanimously voted in favor of Senate Bill 1478 to help address this problem. The bill is awaiting Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ signature.
People on probation are typically subject to a variety of conditions, including regular check-ins, drug testing, mandatory treatment or counseling, and the payment of fines and fees. In Florida, violations of these conditions may result in the revocation, modification, or continuation of probation supervision. When a person’s probation is revoked, a judge may impose any sentence that was permissible during the offender’s initial sentence. Often, that means some time in jail or prison.
According to a recent report from the Crime and Justice Institute, 48% of annual community supervision exits in Florida are because of revocation rather than successful completion of sentences. Approximately 57% of revocations in Florida are because of technical violations rather than new felony or misdemeanor offenses.
These data suggest that revocations resulting from technical violations of community supervision substantially contribute to Florida’s incarcerated population.
In recent years, lawmakers, agency leaders, and courts have pursued reforms to reduce revocations and incarceration attributed to technical violations of community supervision.
In 2016, the state legislature passed a bill authorizing the chief judge in each of Florida’s 20 judicial circuits to establish Alternative Sanctioning Programs (ASP) to resolve technical violations without revoking supervision. Three years later in 2019, the legislature created a standardized statewide ASP that allows probation officers to resolve low- and moderate-risk technical violations without initiating the court process or arresting and booking the offender.
Senate Bill 1478 builds on these prior reforms to address some of the many remaining pitfalls associated with Florida’s probation program. The bill makes targeted changes to Florida’s sentencing policies related to violations of probation. Technical violations resolved through Florida’s Alternative Sanctioning Program would not be factored into the point system used by courts to determine the lowest permissible sentence in each case. This would help avoid unnecessary incarceration because of technical violations.
The bill also expands the use of Florida’s ASP to address certain technical violations of community supervision.
Probation officers would be required (rather than allowed) to resolve an offender’s first or second low-risk violations through the ASP. This would help avoid disproportionate responses to technical violations. However, if a court finds a specific, identified risk to public safety, the court may instruct the probation officer to submit an affidavit of violation.
Finally, SB 1478 provides for the timely resolution of violations. In cases where a probationer is arrested for a low-risk violation, a court must hear the case within 30 days of the probationer’s arrest. If a hearing is not held within the 30-day period, the probationer must be released without bail, but the court may impose non-monetary conditions of release. This requirement would avoid situations where people are needlessly stuck in jail because of court delays.
As the latest in a series of legislative reforms, Florida Senate Bill 1478 offers Gov. Ron DeSantis a great opportunity to further improve Florida’s parole and community supervision programs.
A version of this commentary first appeared in the Sarasota Observer.