Smart justice doesn’t require more Florida prisons



Florida recently announced that it would reopen some of the prisons it closed a year ago due to projections of a growing inmate population.

In 2012, Gov. Rick Scott announced prison facility closures as a cost-saving measure. It seems those closures were premature.

The Department of Corrections is now asking for $59 million to reopen nine of those facilities, including two prisons, five work camps and two re-entry centers. In all, the department is requesting $124 million in additional funding for the upcoming budget year.

Florida went through a period in the late 1990s and early 2000s when we passed a number of “tough on crime” policy initiatives. While all were meritorious, some have resulted in unintended consequences and have left little room for judicial discretion to address unusual or extenuating circumstances.

The laws also led to an explosion in our inmate population.

Two tough new laws — 10-20-Life and Three Strikes — set minimum mandatory sentences that join Florida’s already prescriptive minimum mandatory sentence requirements. Additionally, two rules further lengthen the time inmates and probation violators spend in prison: 85 percent time served and zero tolerance.

While the crime rate continues to decline, a good thing, the time spent in our state prisons was going up — at an average cost of $18,000 per inmate per year.

Besides longer mandatory sentences for violent offenders, our prisons are getting filled with nonviolent offenders, now roughly 47 percent of the inmate population.

In 2008, the Florida Legislature passed SB 2000, legislation that created the Correctional Policy Advisory Council. It was scheduled to “sunset,” or cease functioning, in 2011 after the 10-member council made recommendations to the state on how to revise laws that govern the criminal justice system. The commission was not funded and never met. While some justice experts were appointed to the commission, other board slots were left vacant. This was not only a missed opportunity but a dereliction of duty that will continue to have a detrimental impact on the integrity of our justice system.

Just who is in our state prisons?

We have 100,844 inmates ranging in age from 14 to 93. Males make up 93 percent of the inmate population; 7 percent are female. This doesn’t include those in jails or juvenile justice facilities. Only 53 percent of our prison inmates are incarcerated for a violent primary offense.

Drug offenses make up almost 17 percent of the prison population or roughly 17,150 inmates. At an annual cost of $17,973 to house and feed, that is a cost of more than $308 million to Florida taxpayers. Why not decriminalize possession of small amounts of certain drugs? Or focus financial resources on rehab and job training to help those addicted to have a better chance of success?

We also house 564 inmates for the offense of driving with a suspended license. In many of these cases the underlying offense for suspending the license was failure to pay a fee or fine — much like with the debtor prisons of the 1800s.

While we are technically incarcerating them for driving while their licenses are suspended, their real crime is being poor. Annual cost to taxpayers to incarcerate is more than $10 million.

And what happens to their families while the head of household is in prison? Some children are placed in state custody. Others access public assistance programs, such as food stamps, welfare and Medicaid, at additional cost to taxpayers and with a further degradation of family cohesion and self-sufficiency.

How is this good public policy? How is suspending someone’s license going to help that individual earn the funds necessary to meet his financial obligations, support his family or lead a productive life?

What should we do instead? Some suggestions: Set up payment plans to keep the family intact and the debtor working. Require the offender to work off the debt in jobs that we’ve been told no one will take such as picking crops. And in cases where they have repeatedly failed to pay, send them to work camps until the debt is repaid in full.

While it might be necessary to reopen facilities to deal with estimated growth in the prison population, we should explore smart justice proposals that would reduce the need to build more facilities and to warehouse people who are nonviolent and do not pose a threat to the safety of our citizens. One such change is to abolish minimum mandatory sentences for nonviolent crimes.

Those who break the law should be punished. But we need to take a serious look at current laws, their corresponding sentences and the need for judicial discretion to ensure that the punishment does in fact fit the crime.

Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland.

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