Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: Florida’s prisons should be graded just like other tax-funded institutions

In Florida, data rules. Except for prisons.

Public school administrators’ careers hinge on graduate rates and test scores. State law mandates that the “merit” in teachers’ merit raises depend on whether knucklehead students ace high-stakes tests.

Cops find pay and promotion tied to “smart policing” data systems, based on crimes and clearance rates.

Hospitals are rated on performance-based data bases.

Florida's public universities compete with one another for a share of a $100 million pot designated as “performance-based funding” by the state Board of Governors. The board adopted a complex 10-point “metric” system, including employment data, graduate rates and financial reports.

The BOG criteria is utterly unforgiving, with the bottom three universities not only losing out on a cut of the bonus money — they’ll also get docked 1 percent of their budget. That’s tough, but everyone knows that in the new Florida, data rules.

Odd, then, that a state leadership obsessed with number-based accountability doesn't hold Florida’s other great depository of human potential to performance metrics.

Probably because the Department of Corrections would flunk.

Some 27.6 percent of DOC’s grads cycle back into prison. They emerge from the corrections system uncorrected. They commit more crimes. They rob or assault or burglarize or defraud or rape or kill more victims. Mostly, they surrender, again, to illegal drugs. They leave their spouses and children impoverished and bereft of opportunity. They clog up the criminal justice system. They return to the prison system and cost taxpayers $17,338 a year for their upkeep.

Yet, legislators grant DOC more money than they allocate to the university system — $2.3 billion a year, with no strings, no metrics, no incentives attached.

The money gets apportioned to 55 state prisons without regard to individual institutions’ recidivism rates. Of course, everyone in the system — except those behind bars — is fat and happy with the status quo. Unions want to keep those 22,400 guards and probation officers on the payroll. Prison administrators sure as hell don’t want to mess with the criteria that has made them big players in a Florida growth industry. “The way the reward system works, the way you increase your budget and increase your importance is to get more inmates,” said Allison DeFoor, chairman of the Project on Accountable Justice at Florida State University. “Nobody's getting paid to drop the number of prisoners.”

“Prisons have zero accountability,” said DeFoor, famous hereabouts for his time as a judge and sheriff in Monroe County. He said the average community college faces more accountability than Corrections. It’s a system, he said, that fails to recognize the stark reality that the average prisoner will be heading back into society, utterly unprepared for life on the outside, in just 2.8 years.

Rather, DOC seems to operate on the assumption that its 100,000-plus inmates are never getting out. Only 2 percent of the DOC budget goes to education or drug rehab (although 16.9 percent of the prison populations are serving drug sentences.)

There’s no incentive to do otherwise. No legislation to reward DOC, with one of every seven state workers on its payroll, to reduce recidivism. No incentive to empty prison beds.

So even as the crime rate goes down, the prison population goes up.

Much of the prison boom can be blamed on the state’s get-tough-on-crime laws. Florida abolished parole in 1983 and adopted a series of mandatory sentencing laws. Then in 1995, the state passed a law requiring prisoners to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence.

The unintended consequences of the harsh sentencing binge were captured nicely in a report released June 2 by the Pew Charitable Trusts. Florida now leads the nation in the percentage of prisoners released straight back into society without some period of supervision.

The Pew study found that 64.3 percent of Florida inmates in 2012 (21,426 convicts) were set loose without parole monitoring or with some sort of support network to help ease them back into society. That was the highest rate of any state. The average among all the states was 21.5 percent.

In Florida, DeFoor noted dryly, an inmate can go “straight from solitary confinement to the streets.”

The need to fix our zealot sentencing laws isn’t a left-wing issue. It’s about fiscal conservatism. It’s about the data. “I ain’t no liberal,” declared DeFoor, former vice chairman of the Florida Republican Party. He points out that a national coalition of conservative Republicans, led by Newt Gingrich, are pushing to reform a mindless system nationwide that has the highest incarceration rate in the world, that imprisons 25 percent of the world’s inmate population, that incarcerates one of every 108 Americans, that costs taxpayers $60 billion a year to maintain.

“Our corrections system is not correcting,” Gingrich wrote for CNN last month. “Within three years of being released from prison, nearly half of prisoners are convicted of another crime, with one out of every four ending up back in prison.

“When a typical bureaucracy does its job this badly, it wastes money, time and paper,” Gingrich wrote. “The corrections bureaucracy, in failing to correct the large majority of inmates in its charge, not only wastes money but also wastes lives, families and entire cities.”

The Florida Legislature inched cautiously toward sentencing reform this last session, raising the threshold for the amount of illegally obtained narcotic pain mediation that would trigger a minimum mandatory sentence. Another new law provides identification documents for newly released prisoners. That’s a start.

But why not give prisons the same kind of incentives and penalties in getting their grads ready for the real world that we’ve forced on public schools and universities? It’s time to crunch the prison data like we do with so many other taxpayer-supported institutions. “If we can measure the problems,” DeFoor insisted, “the solutions will present themselves.”