A smarter way to run Florida’s correctional system


There are many reasons the Legislature should embrace “Smart Justice” legislation, including significant benefits to public safety. But as the House and Senate get down to the nitty-gritty of adopting a final budget, there is an even more compelling reason: money. A lot of it.

The Florida Department of Corrections is working hard to eliminate a budget deficit that swelled to more than $95 million earlier this year. The Legislature and taxpayers have an obvious desire to reduce DOC spending without jeopardizing public safety. One area ripe for savings seems obvious to the Florida Smart Justice Alliance: recidivism. Simply put, the state of Florida is spending entirely too much money incarcerating the same people over and over again, without doing enough to make sure that once they get out, they stay out.

How much is too much? Florida taxpayers are spending more than a quarter-billion dollars a year to incarcerate more than 14,000 “new” inmates who had been in prison at least once before. Overall, almost half of the state’s prison population is made up of repeat offenders, at a yearly cost of $799.5 million.

This is a big part of Florida’s corrections problem: We aren’t correcting inmates. In most cases we are just incarcerating them. We can’t afford to do that anymore without providing treatment for underlying issues (so often, substance-abuse or mental-health issues) and educational/vocational services to help them live law-abiding lives once they are released.

Statistics and common sense tell us that when a previous felon is caught again, he has probably committed more than just the single crime that led to this most recent arrest. If the offender has a substance abuse issue, it’s likely there are numerous crime victims whose homes or cars were broken into to help fuel his drug habit. Why would we allow that to happen? We know these inmates have addictions, and we had them captured in our prisons for years – yet in most cases we did nothing to help them address their addictions.

This isn’t about being soft on crime, to somehow excuse their criminal actions because of alcohol, drug or mental health problems. It’s about being smart on justice by using our resources to help break the cycle of crime, arrest, imprisonment, release . . . and crime again.

An excellent example of the need for a focused direction on treatment and education is House Judiciary Committee Chair Dennis Baxley’s bill (HB 7121) and its companion by Sen. Thad Altman (SB 1032), which would ensure that Florida-born inmates are able to receive a state-issued ID card or other form of identification when they leave prison.

This seemingly small item is a crucial step in an ex-inmate’s effort to secure housing, a job or even a medical prescription refill. Since lack of a job can be one of the top problems for an ex-inmate, helping them in this regard will be of tremendous benefit for society. This can be done without a significant expenditure, and in exchange Florida could realize substantial savings.

Everyone wants a safer society. Florida’s overall crime and recidivism rates have been declining as a result of the state’s deserved reputation for “get tough” criminal justice policies, effective law enforcement and a change in Department of Corrections policies regarding technical violations of probation. We now have an opportunity to lower these rates even further and realize dramatic cost savings, if we institute smart, intelligent policies that do not undercut the requirement that all prisoners serve at least 85 percent of their sentences.

With Florida spending $255 million annually on reoffenders, we must consider a different approach. We must recognize that by providing treatment for more felons who have underlying issues, we can improve public safety and save considerable tax dollars. Intelligent alternatives can lead to the desired outcomes that taxpayers expect of our policymakers.

Barney Bishop III is the president and chief executive officer of the Florida Smart Justice Alliance.

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