April 22, 2024

Editor's Page

Corrections course for Florida's lock ‘em up prison system

Mark R. Howard | 2/26/2015

Count me philosophically among those who have no problem with locking people up as punishment. We’ve had a few burglaries in the neighborhood recently — I want the victims to get their stuff back, but I don’t think it’s inappropriate for the people who took it to spend some time in jail.

One problem for people who think like I do, however, is that lock-’em-up criminal justice policy comes with expiration dates. Half of all inmates serve two years or less, and nine out of 10 inmates are ultimately released — even with all the mandatory minimum sentences and tough-on-crime prosecutors and judges.

The other problem is that I also believe in accountability and effective government. Essentially every significant piece of both the public and private sectors these days — from universities and K-12 schools to hospitals and the news media — has to show what it’s delivering in exchange for the money that taxpayers or investors provide.

Not corrections. Florida, like the rest of America, has chosen to incarcerate a disproportionately large part of its population. From 1970-2009, the state’s population nearly tripled. Florida’s prison population, however, increased more than 11-fold. Florida’s crime rate is 17% higher than the national average, but our incarceration rate is 33% higher than the national average. Today, Florida houses more than 100,000 inmates in 56 state prisons — 8% of all state prison inmates in the country. Another 60,000 inmates in Florida are in county jails.

Just keeping a large number of offenders out of society doesn’t have much effect on crime rates. Locking ’em up accounts for only about 30% of the steady decline in crime over the past several decades, according to the best research.

The biggest problem is that the “corrections” system doesn’t do much correcting. For every 100 who are released, about 60 will be rearrested within three years, and more than 25 will end up back in state prison.

This is a revolving-door system, not a corrections system. It’s failure, by any measure. And it’s expensive. Florida spent more than $2.2 billion on corrections in 2013-14 — more than the state spends for its entire State University System. Spending has more than doubled since 1990 to about $20,000 per inmate each year. One in eight state employees now works for the Florida Department of Corrections.

Florida can’t even claim that, “well, nobody else is doing a better job.” More than 20 states, including conservative strongholds like Kentucky and Alabama, are taking part in the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, which provides technical assistance to states to help them become more cost-effective at managing and rehabilitating offenders while improving public safety in the process.

Meanwhile, other states are finding ways to spend smarter and reduce crime in the process. In Texas, in 2007, a budget projection said the state would need an additional 17,000 prison beds at a cost of more than $2 billion. Since then, with bipartisan support, that state has made changes, including new substance abuse programs and diversion courts for non-violent drug offenders, that have cut Texas’ incarceration rates by 10%. Crime has fallen 18%. The state has saved millions.

Georgia, which had the highest rate of adults under correctional control in the country, has passed a series of laws expected to save more than $250 million over five years. The state now has policies aimed at rehabilitating nonviolent offenders, diverting juveniles and non-violent adults from prison and other cost-cutting measures. Crime rates have continued to fall.

In those states and others, reforming criminal justice has become a bipartisan issue supported by conservatives who think in terms of cost-effectiveness and liberals who’ve questioned the fairness of “lock-’em-up” criminal justice policies. The Right on Crime group, which includes conservative icons like Grover Norquist and Newt Gingrich, has noted that “we are over-incarcerating; we do so at a tremendous cost, and there are alternatives available that will — if done right — preserve public safety and lower the burden on taxpayers.”

In Florida, the Project on Accountable Justice, a consortium of four universities, including Florida State University, is trying to lead Florida toward a more productive approach to corrections. Allison DeFloor, chairman of the project, has been the sheriff of Monroe County, a judge, the running mate of Republican Gov. Bob Martinez and an Episcopal priest who has led a prison ministry at a faith-based institution in Wakulla.

This legislative session, the project wants the state to bring the Justice Reinvestment Initiative to Florida to conduct an open, comprehensive, non-partisan review of the entire criminal justice system. The JRI would then make recommendations for the Legislature to consider. The Accountable Justice Project also advocates creating an independent governing board for the corrections system to help buffer it from politics, increasing pay and training for corrections officers and instituting rigorous performance measures for prisons. The project supports ongoing moves by counties and organizations around Florida to limit overly punitive policies for juveniles, and keeping children out of the adult system.

“This is not a ‘let-’em-go’ exercise. This is a ‘do-what-works’ exercise,” says DeFloor. “The mission is simple: Less crime for less money. We need a more effective system. This is a business.”

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