Rehab Programs Take Hit
By KEVIN BEGOS The Tampa Tribune Published: Dec 20, 2006
TALLAHASSEE – Funding for cost-effective prison rehab programs has plummeted in recent years, costing taxpayers money, making work more dangerous for corrections officers and fueling repeat crimes by ex-cons, a task force appointed by Gov. Bush has found. The finding may be especially significant for the Tampa Bay area, because more inmates – 2,728 – were discharged to Hillsborough County in 2004-05 than anywhere else in the state. "The point of getting drug-addicted offenders clean, mentally ill prisoners on medication and undereducated felons into employment is not simply to make life easier for prisoners," said Robert Blount of Tampa, the task force’s vice chairman. "All of us will be better off if we can keep more ex-offenders on the straight and narrow path to legal, gainful employment," said Blount, who is also president of Abe Brown Ministries, a Tampa-based organization that counsels inmates, former offenders and their families. Funding for prison substance-abuse treatment declined 47 percent between 2001 and 2005, and funding for educational and vocational programs fell 33 percent. The effect was even greater than those numbers suggest because the inmate population increased 18 percent during that time. Pinellas and Polk counties ranked sixth and seventh in the number of released inmates, according to the Department of Corrections. The report noted that Florida Tax Watch has found that for every dollar invested in inmate programs, there were savings of $1.66 in the first year and $3.20 in the second because of lower rates for repeat offenders. The Department of Corrections had a budget of about $1.9 billion in 2004-05 and spent $32 million of that – about 1.7 percent – on treatment and education programs. Task force Chairwoman Vicki Lopez Lukis said corrections officials know the value of education and treatment programs. "What the Legislature decides is what they get," said Lukis, a former Lee County commissioner who served 15 months in prison for mail fraud starting in 1999. Faith-based prisons have also shown promise, according to the report. Inmates in those facilities were disciplined at about half the rate of other inmates. The report recommends major new funding for rehabilitation programs and additional faith-based prisons, but it did not estimate costs. Gov.-elect Charlie Crist did not respond to questions about whether he supports increased funding. Department of Corrections spokesman Robby Cunningham said the agency has not had time to review the report. Reporter Kevin Begos can be reached at (850) 222-8382 or firstname.lastname@example.org <http://www.tbo.com/news/metro/mailto:email@example.com> .