Florida Prison Cuts May Be End of ‘Get-Tough’ Mindset
Florida’s get-tough policy on crime during the past few decades is set
to collide with an austere budget and a conservative governor pledging
to take bold steps to save money.
With 102,000 prisoners, Florida has the third-largest prison population in the country and some of the toughest sentencing practices in the United States.
But most of those prisoners, poorly educated, lacking job training and facing unresolved drug and alcohol problems and mental illness, will wind up back on the street — and soon, prison again.
Those circumstances have led to an explosion in the prison population and the annual $2.4 billion corrections budget. During the past five years, the system hasgrown by 17,300 prisoners, despite a declining crime rate.
Now, in a dramatic shift in prison policy, state leaders looking to cover a budget gap of more than $4 billion may look to aggressively embrace private prisons, as well as an array of sentencing reforms, improved substance abuse and education programs and other efforts to prepare prisoners to successfully return to their communities.
Gov. Rick Scott has promised to cut $1 billion from the corrections budget during the next seven years. His plan for achieving that goal will become clearer in the next few weeks as he presents his first budget to the Legislature, and his newly appointed corrections secretary Edwin Buss — who earned a reputation as an innovative cost-cutter as head of the Indiana prison system — begins his job Feb. 14.
But changes to decades of Florida prison policy will not come easily, running headlong into Florida’s tradition as a "get-tough-on-crime" state. In fact, the state’s penal code notes punishment is its "primary purpose," while rehabilitation is "subordinate" to that goal.
That get-tough tradition has led to the elimination of parole for prisoners, therequirement that they serve 85 percent of their sentences, a 10-20-life sentences for crimes involving guns, a "three strikes" law for repeat felons and judges’ authority to send any felon to prison, even for relatively minor crimes.
Nearly all those measures were linked to high-profile crimes, ranging from the killing of tourists to the murder of children.
Some top lawmakers have said they would resist efforts to retreat from those standards.
"We want to be cautious," said Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, chairman of the Senate budget committee that oversees prison spending.
Buss, the new corrections secretary, will inherit a system in which nearly nine of every 10 prisoners will be released at some point.
And those prisoners represent a real threat to their communities, for several reasons:
They are poorly educated; more than half read below the sixth-grade level.
Most have few job skills and many have unresolved drug addiction and alcohol problems, reflecting the fact that the state only spends 1 percent of its $2.4 billion prison budget on substance abuse, education and vocational programs.
Many have mental health issues. Nearly one in five prisoners receives care for mental illnesses, with prison officials saying an unknown number may need help but do not receive it.
Most will serve at least 85 percent of their sentences. But once released, many will have little or no supervision. They leave with a bus ticket for home, $100 and "some rudimentary job skills, if they are lucky," according to the state Department of Corrections.
Not surprisingly, one out of every three prisoners released is likely to return to state prison within the next three years, having violated his or her probation or by committing a new crime.
Fasano said he wants to make certain the state doesn’t undermine its success in fighting crime.
"The crime rate is down in Florida and I think a lot of it has to do with going after those who commit crimes and those who are repeat offenders," he said.
But other leaders say it is time to at least re-examine some state policies.
Senate Criminal Justice Chairman Greg Evers, R-Baker, said he was willing to look at issues, including the 85 percent requirement and the possibility of reviving some form of parole, which was abolished in 1983.
Evers said his committee would consider a range of suggestions, including proposals advanced by Florida TaxWatch, a business-oriented research group, and otherthink tanks that recommend Florida increase its efforts to rehabilitate prisoners.
One simpler — but more controversial — response to the latest financial crisis would be to save money by letting prisoners end their sentences early.
In fact, when the Department of Corrections was asked for a plan to cut its budget by 15 percent last fall, the agency suggested the most savings could be achieved by releasing 13,000 prisoners with about six months left in their sentences. The move would save $259 million and allow 10 prisons to be closed.
Lawmakers largely rejected the proposal. Rep. Rich Glorioso, R-Plant City, chairman of the House budget panel on prison spending, said he was "appalled" by the early-release plan.
Instead, Glorioso said he was intrigued by testimony last week from a Republican state lawmaker from Texas who appeared before two Senate panels to explain his state’s effort to reform prison and sentencing practices.
Rep. Jerry Madden, R-Plano, said Texas has curbed rising prison costs through "risk analysis" that identifies prisoners who are more likely to be rehabilitated and which should remain behind bars.
Texas, unlike Florida, has slightly reduced its prison population with more innovative sentencing and channeling prisoners into treatment programs for drug and alcohol abuse, as well as education programs.
Madden noted the national prison reform movement, which has been embraced by conservative leaders such as former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, is being picked up by other southern states.
"It’s a conservative message," Madden said. "We weren’t just being tough on crime; we were being smart."
big changes required
Translating the program to Florida will require money because the prison system is spending minimally on rehabilitation.
Scott is expected to find savings in the system through more use of private companies, although the effort will be opposed by the politically powerful union that represents correctional officers.
A new study jointly published by Florida TaxWatch and the Reason Foundation, a conservative research group, suggested Florida could resolve many prison problems by contracting with private companies toprovide a "continuum" of services for a prison region.
Calling it a "bold new approach," the study suggested Florida could convert two of its four regional systems — one in the Panhandle and the other in South Florida — to allow privatecompanies to provide all services, ranging from incarceration to health care, drug treatment, preparation for a return to society and monitoring those released to communities.
The study projected $1 billion in savings over 10 years — close to Scott’s goal.
"In short, fiscal crises are presenting an opportunity for state policymakers and corrections administrators to ‘think outside the box’ in transforming and right-sizing correctional systems," the report said.