New legislation would allow for military service in lieu of prison time

TALLAHASSEE – State lawmakers are looking for creative alternatives to prison time for certain first-time low-level offenders.

One bill filed for the 2021 legislative session would provide the option of serving in the military instead of going behind bars, but even if passed, the idea is likely to run into obstacles.

A first-time offender, 25 or younger, who is facing convictions carrying up to four years in prison, would have the option of serving in the military in lieu of prison time under the legislation.

Joe West, a Vietnam veterans, said that back during the way, military service instead of jailtime was a fairly common option for judges.

“And they were not any different than my other brothers,” said West.

He said in his experience, those who took military service were better off than those who didn’t.

“It made a lot of good people out of people that may have gone a different path had they not had that option,” said West.

Barney Bishop, with the Florida Smart Justice Alliance, said he believes the idea has merit, especially for non-violent offenders.

“Even though it is a violent profession, because we’re trying to help nonviolent offenders have another alternative,” said Bishop.

The legislation would still require those who opt for military service to pay back any fines or fees tied to their sentence within the first term of their enlistment.

But even if the legislation passes, the option might not work in practice. That’s because most branches of the military now explicitly prohibit service as an alternative to criminal conviction.

“The military has much higher standards now for entry than we had in the late 60s, early 70s,” West said. “I mean back then if you had a pulse you’re physically capable of being in the military.”

But supporters of the military option said Congress would have more authority to make the idea a reality.

West said he thinks it would be in the best interest of the country.

“I think it would help them understand our country better, and I think it would give them a love of country that a lot of them these days are lacking,” said West.

The bill has been filed in both the Florida House and Senate. Lawmakers begin their annual session Jan. 11.