Time spent behind bars by prisoners in Florida more than doubled in the past decade, a growth spurt higher than any other state in the nation, according to a recently released national report.
The analysis, done by the Pew Center on the States, was part of a broad look at prison sentences across the country using data from 1990 to 2009.
Nationwide, prisoners released in 2009 spent an average of nine months longer in custody than offenders released in 1990. The cost of those extra nine months was $23,300 per offender — totaling more than $10 billion over the nearly 20-year span, the report said.
And Florida went well beyond the national average.
Of the 50 states, time served in Florida during the same time period went up 166 percent, the biggest percentage jump than all of them. The average prisoner in 1999 spent a bit more than a year in prison. The average in 2009 was three years.
That increase was seen in all types of crimes, from violent to nonviolent and drugs.
Though Florida saw the biggest jump, there were still nine states that, on average, kept a prisoner behind bars even longer. One state, Utah, had the same average as Florida.
And the study did note that part of the reason for Florida’s jump was because the average in 1990 was so small, the lowest in the country that year.
Did all those people in prison make Floridians safer? The report’s authors said that, to some extent, longer prison sentences increased safety. But overall, the strategy had reached a “tipping point,” with more incarceration having little effect on public safety, it said.
The report also pointed out that, in the past decade, new supervision programs had been created to help break the cycle of people repeating their crimes.
In Florida, researchers believed 14 percent of nonviolent offenders released in Florida in 2004 could have been released earlier “with little or no public safety consequences,” the report said.
The suggestion that certain people were better helped outside of prison seemed to echo concerns raised earlier this year by lawmakers, who approved a bill that would have allowed a small group of drug-addicted inmates to move from prison to intensive treatment programs after serving half their time.
They would still be in custody, but not behind bars. Only nonviolent offenders would have been eligible after a full assessment and after being enrolled in adult education courses.
Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, has championed the idea for years, saying that the Legislature needed to catch up with the public realization that prison wasn’t the best way to treat a person’s drug problem.
“I recognize the need to be tough on crime, but in some respects what we’re doing is not working,” Bogdanoff said.
The bill passed both chambers with support from Republicans and Democrats.
“We’re incarcerating folks that have a medical condition or a drug problem and that needs to be corrected,” said Sen. Republican Greg Evers, chairman of the Criminal Justice Committee.
Gov. Rick Scott vetoed it.
Afterward, Scott said in a statement that, “Justice to victims of crimes is not served when a criminal is permitted to be released early from a sentence imposed by the courts.”
But in its analysis, Pew said that wasn’t always the only way to prevent crime.
"There’s no question that violent and career criminals need to be behind bars and stay there for a long time, but there’s mounting evidence that there are more effective, less expensive ways to deal with nonviolent offenders," said Adam Gelb, director of the Public Safety Performance Project.