Why Florida leads the nation in people serving life without chance of parole.
Originally published The Marshall Project 11-11-2021
Two Strikes and You’re in Prison Forever
Why Florida leads the nation in people serving life without chance of parole.
ALTAMONTE SPRINGS, Fla. — On a hot June afternoon in 2011, 69-year-old Eunice Hopkins rolled down the windows of her silver BMW, waiting for the air conditioning to kick in before she left a supermarket parking lot.
A tall, disheveled man in a straw hat walked up to her car window, grabbed her arm and demanded the keys, she told police in this Orlando suburb. She screamed and pulled out of the parking space. The man ran into a shopping mall across the street, where officers arrested him.
Mark Jones, a 37-year-old former West Point cadet, suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and alcoholism, according to court records. He had been arrested before for low-level crimes and served a year in prison after stealing a $400 tool set from a Home Depot.
For the unsuccessful carjacking, however, he was sentenced to life without parole. That means he will never get out of prison, no matter how sober and industrious he has become in his 10 years behind bars.
The number of people serving life-without-parole sentences has soared across the country in the last two decades, rising to 56,000, according to The Sentencing Project, an advocacy group. Some people received these penalties as an alternative to capital punishment, which has fallen out of favor with many prosecutors and the public. The number of death sentences dwindled to 18 last year, and only 2,500 people are now on death row, down from almost 3,600 two decades ago.
But there’s another reason for the increase: A handful of states have embraced life-without-parole sentences to punish “repeat offenders” — even if their crimes didn’t cause physical injury, an investigation by The Marshall Project and The Tampa Bay Times found.
Washington passed the first “three strikes” law in 1993, allowing prosecutors to give life sentences to people convicted even of nonviolent felonies if they met the criteria for “persistent offenders.” At least two dozen states followed suit, including Florida in 1995.
In many states, people sentenced to life used to become eligible for parole after 15 years. But Florida and others virtually ended parole a generation ago, so that life sentences became permanent.
Today, Florida has more than 13,600 people serving life without parole, far more than any other state and almost a quarter of the total nationwide. Though this sentence is widely seen as an alternative to the death penalty, which is used in murder cases, 44% of the people serving it in Florida were not convicted of that crime, according to our analysis of state data.
Part of the reason Florida’s numbers are so high is that it went further than any other state in 1997 by passing an unusual “two strikes” law known as the Prison Releasee Reoffender Act. The law directs prosecutors to seek the maximum sentence for someone who commits a felony within three years of leaving prison, which often means a lifetime behind bars. The law also takes sentencing discretion away from judges.
About 2,100 of the state’s permanent lifers, or about 15%, are in prison because of the law, our investigation found. The crimes that netted life without parole included robbing a church of a laptop, holding up motel clerks for small amounts of cash and stealing a television while waving a knife.
“The scope of life without parole is huge in Florida,” said Christopher Seeds, a professor at University of California, Irvine, and an expert on life sentences. The state has an unusual number of crimes that are punishable by life, he added. The state abolished parole in 1983, and Florida governors rarely grant clemency.
How Florida’s Two-Strikes Law Leads to Life Sentences
Penton was addicted to drugs and served time in prison in his teens for grand theft and burglary. In 2005, he was working for an uncle, and they had a falling out. Penton went to his uncle’s house and took two guns to cover what he said was money he was owed. His uncle, Larry Thomas, reported the break-in. Prosecutors sought life against Penton under the state’s Prison Releasee Reoffender Act, commonly referred to as PRR. “I loved him very much,” Thomas said recently. “I hate it that he got all that time.”
The two-strikes punishment has been disproportionately applied to Black men, who account for almost 75% of those serving time because of the 1997 law, our analysis found; about 55% of all prisoners in the state are Black. Their most common charge was armed robbery, not homicide.
Housing its life-without-parole population, including those locked up under the two-strikes law, cost Florida at least $330 million last year, according to our analysis of state data.
“This is an incredibly punitive law that is totally arbitrary,” said Jeff Brandes, a Republican who represents St. Petersburg in the Florida Senate and is trying to repeal the two-strikes law, so far without much support from his colleagues. He said Florida wastes too much taxpayer money locking people up forever on burglary, robbery and theft.
“A sentence that is too long is just as unjust as a sentence that is too short,” he said.
Prosecutors argue that repeat-offender laws and life without parole help combat crime in Florida. The population of people serving life includes thousands of murderers as well as people who have sexually abused children or committed violent crimes, they note.
Ed Brodsky, president of the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association, said his colleagues typically use the two-strikes sentencing law enhancement to punish repeat offenders who have committed violent felonies.
And it is not hard for people to avoid, he said. “All they have to do is remain crime-free.”
But Brodsky, the elected state attorney for Sarasota, said it might be time to reexamine the two-strikes sentence.
“It’s always good to look at the law and see how it’s doing and ask: Is it serving our intended purpose?” he said. “Are there unintended consequences that are occurring?”
Jones grew up in Marlton, New Jersey, and planned on becoming an FBI agent one day, like his father, or an Army officer. But he was the victim of a violent hazing incident while attending the U.S. Military Academy at West Point; he said he reported the attack to school officials, but was told to keep quiet. Officials at West Point did not respond to requests for comment.
The incident spurred him to leave the military, which gave him an honorable discharge.
The hazing continued to haunt him even as he graduated from college with a degree in mathematics, said his brother, Rob Jones, an Army veteran. “What happened to him, it was very demeaning.”
Mark Jones moved to central Florida after his first marriage ended in divorce. His parents had retired there, and he was hoping to get a fresh start. He met Rose Ruiz at the Coral Castle, a tourist attraction outside of Miami, and they married.
Drinking derailed his life, he said in an interview at the prison where he is held. He went from engineering and computer jobs to selling air conditioning systems, funeral packages and mobile phones. He started mowing lawns for money and running around with a crowd who liked to party.
In 2001, he found a credit card in a gas station parking lot and used it to buy beer and groceries, according to court records. He wrote a bad check, stole a pack of Coors Light, and then a cheap TV from a grocery store. He drove drunk, took that tool kit from Home Depot, and then stole a senior citizen’s motorized scooter. He got caught naked and drunk by police and hit a paramedic who shined a flashlight in his face. He failed at drug court and probation. In 2008, he went to prison for a year for theft.
When he got out of prison, he was admitted to a VA treatment program in Orlando because of “homelessness, joblessness, a history of substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder and poor social adjustment,” according to agency records. But he got in trouble for drinking again. “I feel like I am being thrown aside,” he told a counselor while waiting for a bed at Bay Pines, an intensive treatment program for veterans near St. Petersburg, his medical records show.
A few months later, he walked up to Eunice Hopkins’ BMW outside of Orlando. He was blackout drunk and doesn’t remember, he said, but he thinks he meant to ask for a ride.
In the 1990s, lawmakers in Florida said they were tired of seeing repeat offenders cycle in and out of prison, according to news reports at the time. They wanted a tough law that would lock up “the worst of the worst” for good — or at least a long time.
When the two-strikes act passed unanimously in 1997, budget analysts told legislators it could cost Florida taxpayers upward of $1.6 billion in the first decade, and the state might need to add at least 14,000 additional beds for prisoners, analysts estimated.
“This law will be a bigger deterrent than a cost,” the speaker of the Florida House told The Orlando Sentinel.
The Department of Corrections is now Florida’s largest state agency, with an annual budget of $2.3 billion. Spending has increased, even as the state’s overall prison population dropped from 100,000 to nearly 80,000. Its life-without-parole prisoners cost the state more than $330 million last year, based on the agency’s most recent annual average cost per prisoner estimate of $24,265.
People Serving Life Cost Florida Hundreds of Millions of Dollars A Year
The Florida Department of Corrections spent more than $300 million in its last fiscal year to house and care for prisoners who are serving life sentences in prison, according to an estimate by The Marshall Project. The cost grew by more than $120 million from the early 2000s.
Prosecutors in Florida have sole discretion over when to seek the two-strikes sentence. And they almost always seek enhanced sentences, according to state data. Prosecutors asked for increased prison time in about 90% of the eligible cases, or more than 80,000 times since 2010. In the district that covers Tampa in Hillsborough County, prosecutors only pursued sentence enhancements on half of the eligible cases. In more than 50% of the districts, including St. Petersburg, prosecutors sought enhancements 100% of the time.
Some prosecutors said those numbers, which are reported to the state by their offices, don’t reflect the outcomes of all cases, including plea deals.
“I can tell you with 100% confidence that we don’t seek PRR 100% of the time,” said Bruce Bartlett, the state attorney for the St. Petersburg district. “Quite frankly, I wish they would bring parole back.”
Florida Prosecutors Almost Always Seek Max Punishments
Prosecutors in Florida identified more than 90,000 cases where they could pursue sentence enhancements. For more than 80,000, or 90% of the total, they chose to ask for harsher sentences. Among 20 judicial districts in Florida, prosecutors in 11 pursued every possible sentence enhancement over the past decade. Some prosecutors said those numbers, which are reported to the state by their offices, don’t reflect the outcome of all cases, including plea deals.
When prosecutors use the two-strikes law and the defendant is convicted, judges have no say on sentencing. Instead, defendants automatically get whatever sentence state attorneys sought.
Jones was offered a plea deal of 15 years, but didn’t take it, court records show. He went to trial and was convicted by a six-person jury, which Florida law allows.
Stuart Bryson was one of Jones’ public defenders. One of the things that bothers Bryson about the two-strikes law, he said, is that jurors are never told the defendant could be facing life in prison if found guilty. They’re instructed that guilt or innocence is their only concern, and a judge will determine the appropriate punishment. But that’s not the case.
“The legislature has given unbridled and unfettered power to prosecutors,” Bryson said.
The last statement Jones’ trial judge, Jessica Recksiedler, made after imposing a mandatory life sentence?
“I wish I could say good luck sir, but God bless,” according to a court transcript. (She did not respond to requests for comment.)
The state attorney whose office prosecuted Jones declined to comment.
After he was sentenced, Jones said, he made a plan to kill himself. The other prisoners told him not to lose hope. He could appeal, they told him.
“I kind of changed paths at that point,” he said.
He decided not to give up. He worked his way up from groundskeeper to law clerk in prison. The courts have upheld his life sentence so far, but he keeps filing appeals on behalf of himself and other prisoners.
He quiets his mind now by doing intense, military-style workouts daily. His wife, Rose, still drives two hours each way to visit him most Saturdays.
He’s been sober 10 years and has a spotless disciplinary record from the Florida Department of Corrections. In 2019, the VA approved service-related disability payments for his PTSD and head injuries.
Eunice Hopkins, now 80, lives in a Camelot-themed neighborhood in the suburbs of Orlando, where a sign peeks out of her impeccable garden: “Jesus loves you!”
She was about to deliver some avocados from her tree to a neighbor when a reporter asked her about what happened to her 10 years ago at the Publix supermarket down the road.
“It was so long ago!” she exclaimed. She recalled that she was picking up a treat for her church group that night when Jones approached her car. Her scream was “better than any opera soprano,” she said. She drove home and called her husband, then the police. She’s never gone back to that Publix.
“What happened to me was true, and it was scary,” she said. But when she heard Jones would be locked up for life, she called the prosecutor to complain.
“I said: ‘No, this is too much! He’s a young man!’” she recalled. “I didn’t think it was the right thing to do.”