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 [email protected] <[email protected]> .