Florida TaxWatch is making a bold recommendation to the governor, the Legislature and the Department of Corrections — and it’s worthy of serious consideration.
The nonprofit, nonpartisan watchdog of our tax dollars this week issued a 20-page report urging the powers-that-be to consider letting old, sick inmates in Florida’s prisons out early to reduce their numbers and cost.
At first blush, one would think this is a mandate from some liberal group that’s considered soft on crime and criminals. Not so. This recommendation has little to do with compassion and everything to do with saving taxpayer dollars. And it’s not a bad idea.
The concern is always, Will there be a higher price to pay down the road if the wrong person is released, only to harm or kill again? After all, we’ve been burned before by early prison release measures. Does the name Charlie Street ring a bell?
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But the report is significant because it marks the first time the influential group has recommended “elderly parole” to lawmakers, Florida TaxWatch told the Editorial Board.
Here’s why: As of July, there were 100,994 inmates in Florida’s prison system, the Florida Department of Corrections told the Board. Of those, 20,802 are 50 or older, making Florida’s a graying prison population — and, consequently, one of the most expensive. Housing a young inmate costs $34,135 a year, but that doubles if the prisoner is 50 or older.
The pendulum is swinging back from the late 1980s and early 1990s when prisons started packing them in. South Florida, especially was reeling from street drug wars and tourist murders. After the 1988 shooting deaths of two Miami-Dade police officers, their killer, Charlie Street became the poster child of the shortcomings of Florida’s prison system when it was disclosed that its early-release program shaved seven years from his original 15-year sentence. The outrage from South Florida to Tallahassee prompted stricter sentencing guidelines. The so-called revolving door stopped, but that meant inmates stayed in prison longer — and taxpayers paid more to keep them there.
In quick succession, legislators adopted strict sanctions that removed parole and required inmates to complete at least 85 percent of their sentences. They added mandatory minimum sentences for drug and violent crimes. And many felonies came with “life without parole” sentences.
The general prison population shot up dramatically. These “tough on crime” measures had immediate and long-term consequences on corrections issues in Florida still felt today — including in taxpayers’ pocketbooks.
The potential multimillion-dollar savings should sway elected leaders to consider giving early release another try. But not without stringent criteria for who gets out. For instance, exempt from all early releases, regardless of age, murderers, sexual predators and rapists.
State corrections figures also show recidivism is low in the 50-to-65 age group; 10 percent return to prison within the first year. That drops to 7 percent within two years.
The cost of medical treatment is another factor; the expense could be shifted to Medicare and Medicaid. The criteria for early release could depend on a terminal illness, the progressive state of the disease, treatment costs and chronic pain levels, the group said.
TaxWatch might be on to something. The potential for financial savings makes a persuasive case for state lawmakers to consider.