A Times  Editorial
Published December 20,  2006
 


Department of Corrections  Secretary Jim McDonough says that  Florida will  release 36,000 inmates this year and a third of them will be back in the  state’s prisons within 36 months. The reason so many reoffend, McDonough says,  is that "they’re not prepared to live a life without  crime."

Finding ways of helping them  change that pattern was the job of a task force appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush  that just submitted its final report and recommendations. Most of the task  force’s findings and suggestions are obvious – providing inmates with  educational opportunities because most enter prison with about a 6th-grade  reading level; and offering vocational training and substance abuse treatment  because more than half of all inmates enter the system with an addiction  problem. But Florida does woefully little to help  ex-offenders succeed in a crime-free life after prison. And we reap what we  sow, with whopping prison costs, higher crime rates and fewer productive  citizens.

At the front end, a small  investment will be required. But as Florida TaxWatch has found, for every  dollar spent on inmate programs, $1.66 is returned in the first year and $3.20  in the second. We can’t afford not to do  it.
 
Oddly, one of the most specific  and strongly urged recommendations was to triple the number of faith-based  prisons in Florida within the next two years, even  though the task force acknowledges there is no evidence those programs lower  recidivism.
 
Florida’s experiment with faith-based  prisons is one of Bush’s pet projects. The three current facilities raise  significant church-state separation issues as well as balkanize prison  populations by religion. These programs have lower disciplinary problems, but  that is largely because only inmates with clean disciplinary records  qualify.
 
It doesn’t make any sense to  spend money and time expanding a program that is constitutionally suspect and  fails to do much to prepare prisoners for reintegration. As McDonough points  out, the primary tools for reducing recidivism are improving literacy – which  he says reduces the likelihood of reoffending by 6 percent for every  grade-level increase – vocational training and substance abuse treatment.  Faith-based programs are well down the  list.

Another blatant oversight by  the task force was that it put off dealing with the automatic restoration of  civil rights for ex-felons. Without those rights restored, ex-felons are  barred from seeking a variety of employment and occupational licensing  opportunities. The task force recommended disconnecting civil rights  restoration and employment opportunities. But it makes just as much sense to  do as Gov. -elect Charlie Crist has suggested and provide some kind of  automatic restoration of civil rights to those who have served their  time.

Beyond these few obvious  missteps, the task force’s recommendations are a series of solid ideas that  would give ex-offenders a far better chance at a success. McDonough says it  wouldn’t cost much more than an additional $6-million to increase reading  levels and provide substance abuse treatment to Florida’s inmates, and  the state would see a return of up to sixfold in money saved and crimes  averted. That is a small price to pay for such a significant return on  investment.