Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

Smart justice


OUR OPINION: Consider a plan to reduce both crime and prison costs

Overall, crime is down in Florida, which may explain why the state’s prison population is up. A felon behind bars is one less menace on the street. But locking up so many offenders — violent and nonviolent, alike — has a price.

Florida has the nation’s third-largest prison system and spends about $18,000 a year to house each inmate. Compounding the costs is that nearly three of every 10 inmates return to prison within three years of release.

Now comes the state Department of Corrections, asking for $59 million extra to reopen nine closed facilities next year because new admissions to the system are projected to increase by 2.7 percent in 2014 and 1.4 percent in 2015.

This increase, says the DOC, will require more than 1,000 new prison beds.

This request comes just a year after the DOC closed several prisons to save money at Gov. Rick Scott’s behest. Two of the shuttered facilities — prisons in Raiford and Polk City — would be reopened under the DOC’s latest plan.

So would two re-entry centers, one located in Miami-Dade County, and five work camps around the state.

The DOC also wants to hire more officers, buy new vehicles and pay for an electronic timekeeping system.

The Florida DOC’s annual budget is $2.4 billion — a big chunk of state tax dollars.

Is there any way the state can reduce that annual prison bill? Yes, say advocates of a concept called “smart justice.” The state is incarcerating too many nonviolent drug offenders, they say. Instead of being warehoused in prisons, many nonviolent felons should be treated to wean them off drugs, which would cut down on recidivism.

Using the “smart justice” concept, the state should improve re-entry and probation programs to keep former inmates on the straight path. While behind bars, inmates should be taught skills to help them find jobs on the outside. This is not a “bleeding heart” proposal that calls for being soft on felons. Violent criminals belong in prison for long stretches, period.

But the “smart justice” concept regards many nonviolent offenders and felons convicted of lesser crimes as candidates for rehabilitation. One way to make that thinking possible is to “re-engineer the criminal sentencing laws and save money at the same time,” says state Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, a member of the Senate budget committee overseeing prisons. He’s right, but he’s bucking high winds in an election year when every candidate wants to be known as tough on crime.

But being tough on crime and practicing “smart justice” aren’t antithetical.

Imposing justice smartly really means treating felons as individuals who get fitting, not cookie-cutter, justice.

The concept is catching on, not for humane reasons necessarily, but as a way to cut prison costs. For instance, “smart justice” is a big hit in Georgia, where Republicans adopted it to cut down on repeat crime and incarceration costs. Yet Florida lawmakers need look no further than the state’s own Department of Juvenile Justice, which uses crime-prevention strategies such as court diversion programs and interventions with families to keep juveniles out of trouble and jail.

Gov. Scott may not be sold on the “smart justice” concept, but he should bear in mind that it’s also a “smart money” concept. Reducing crime and reducing prison costs should be catnip for the budget-minded governor.

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