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Florida Builds More Prisons

The Florida state legislature in late May approved a plan to spend $215 million on prison construction and also voted to overhaul state sentencing guidelines.

The expansion package, which passed during a special legislative session called by Gov. Lawton Chiles, will add 10,524 beds to the prison system over the next five years. 8,510 prison beds, 1,511 alternative program beds and about 500 beds for juvenile prisoners. It includes funding for four new prisons as well as dorms added to existing prisons, work camps and drug treatment centers.

About 3,500 prison beds and all the alternative beds are expected to be in operation within a year, heading off a potential early release crisis. Prison officials had feared that by October they would have to begin including violent offenders in their early release program to meet statutory bed capacity. Florida currently houses 50,000 prisoners.

The legislators also agreed to raise the prison population cap from 97.5 percent of the system's capacity to 99 percent before early release programs take effect. This will allow for the use of an additional 792 beds.

The new sentencing legislation narrows the definition of habitual offenders, a step intended to increase the number of drug offenders eligible for early release credits, and eliminates many of the mandatory sentences for crimes ranging from assault on an elderly person to planting a hoax bomb. The bill, which takes effect January 1, 1994, also provides longer terms for violent offenders.

To fund the plan, the legislature will use a $167 million windfall from overestimates in the demand for welfare and medicaid services. The money averted the need for a 25 cents a pack increase in the state cigarette tax.

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