Small sums; big rewards
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.