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Prison chief looks for better answers

Prison chief looks for better answers
By STEVE BOUSQUET, Tallahassee Bureau Chief
Published September 29, 2007

Jim McDonough runs a growth industry: the Florida Department of  Corrections.

In the 18 months since he replaced the fallen James Crosby, the number  of prison beds has jumped from 87,000 to 93,000, and it keeps climbing.

"You’re the fat cat," Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, told McDonough at a recent budget-cut session.

All Crist meant was, the bigger the agency, the bigger the cut. The words hurt McDonough, despite the retired Army colonel’s image as a no-nonsense infantryman ready to charge the next hill.

McDonough tries to balance the need for order in prisons with his conviction that the state does too little to prepare inmates for a return to the streets.

McDonough has a $2.2-billion budget and 27,000 employees.

This state adds the equivalent of 11/2prisons a year, even in an era of declining crime rates. The cost to build a prison is about $100-million. Annual cost to run one: about $40-million.

"We keep passing projections on growth," McDonough says. He knows it’s a sign of failure, a reflection of the state’s high recidivism rate.

That’s why McDonough’s vision of prison life includes spending lots more money on substance abuse, literacy and job skills.

His timing isn’t the best.

McDonough, like other agency heads, must absorb a cut to pull the state out of its $1-billion hole.

Unwilling to take the easy way out (by giving back money the Legislature gave him for treatment), he looked for creative ways to save money.

But his ideas are clashing with an inflexible "tough on crime" mind-set in the Legislature.

Having served as drug czar when Jeb Bush was governor, he says the state can do a better job of treating inmates’ drug problems.

McDonough wanted to ease restrictions on about 3,000 inmates in work-release centers, who are judged as low security risks and are about to return to the streets. None are sex offenders, but some were violent offenders.

He wanted to move so-called year-and-a-day inmates, the ones doing short time, away from hard-core convicts and into tented compounds, and reintegrate them into society with drug treatment programs and halfway houses, to be monitored by probation officers.

McDonough also wanted to use gain time more freely as a carrot to control inmates’ behavior, while not violating the law requiring inmates to serve 85 percent of their sentences.

But instead, in the list of $70-million in recommended cuts to the prison system, the first one listed is reducing substance abuse treatment by $3-million, followed by eliminating 75 vacant probation officer slots.

"Ninety-plus percent of these inmates will get out at some point," McDonough told senators. "If they don’t have literacy skills, some vocational training and some ability to resist the impulse to take drugs, the recidivism rate will go up."

The prison chief who works for a governor nicknamed "Chain Gang Charlie" may be just too compassionate for his boss, and for the lawmakers who control his budget.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.
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