TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Charlie Crist, once known for his support of prison chain gangs, is embracing an inmate rehabilitation effort often seen as "soft on crime."
The new mind-set, also welcomed by top Republican lawmakers, is not a change of heart from the lock-'em-up policies that dominated the past decade. Rather, it indicates how Florida's dire budget situation is making officials rethink the link between crime and punishment.
The shift is notable, given that Republicans are leading the discussion during an election year.
"I think that justice calls for many facets," Crist said Friday. "But I also think if there are individuals who can turn their lives around and get a second chance, especially youth, that's a worthy cause."
Nearly 90 percent of inmates will eventually leave prison, and one in three will commit a new crime within three years. If state prison officials trim recidivism by just 1 percent, they will save $8 million a year.
"Particularly in austere budget times, re-entry (programs) really make good business and public safety sense," Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Walt McNeil said. "It comes from the lock-them-up-and-throw-away-the-key (policies) — the evidence shows it has not been very effective."
As the state's chief warden, McNeil began preaching these reforms years ago.
But the political winds didn't change until June when three former Florida attorneys general, a retired Department of Corrections secretary and the state's powerful business lobby wrote a letter to Crist asking him to halt spending for new prison construction as available dollars grew scarce.
Each inmate costs state taxpayers $20,000 a year, and the prison population now tops 100,000, statistics show. The number of inmates is projected to grow 15 percent in coming years — an unsustainable pace, the group said.
In his executive budget, Crist proposed no money for new prisons and diverted funding for prison work camps to re-entry centers where the state assists inmates' transition into the community through job training and social services.
The thinking is spreading even to the Legislature, which in recent years has approved measures to abolish parole and implement minimum required sentences for offenders.
"The prudence of spending has helped to humanize the issue of incarceration," said state Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, a lawyer who is a recovering alcoholic and drug addict.
For years when offenders left prison, the state gave them $100 and a bus ticket. But in recent presentations to lawmakers, state officials tout a program with space for 5,500 inmates that helps them find jobs and learn life skills — both keys to reducing recidivism.
It's about public safety, officials contend, not coddling criminals. And reducing crime means fewer victims in the future.
"We can measure the bad stuff but never capture all the bad things that didn't happen," said Rebecca Wolf-Reynal, a probation supervisor in Pinellas County who organizes re-entry programs.
The corrections agency is expanding these re-entry hubs in each of the state's four regions for inmates who have less than three years left in prison.
The re-entry facilities operate in conjunction with work release centers that help offenders find jobs before they are released.
Once the program reaches full speed, the state will serve nearly 7,000 inmates at any given time, though the agency wants to expand even further.
Gordon Lee Jr. participated in voluntary re-entry classes after serving 18 years in prison for a slew of drug charges. He left prison at age 40 with dim hopes after seeing others released only to return.
"They went back to the same environment with the same things and wound up with the same results," said Lee, now 42 and a supervisor at a car rental agency in Tampa. "But they taught me a lot of life skills. They made me feel like I had a chance."
The agency's new focus on helping offenders is bolstering a broader examination of how the state punishes criminals.
This year, House Bill 23, the "Second Chance for Children in Prison Act" — once deemed dead on arrival — is getting another look.
The legislation would allow the state's parole board to reconsider lengthy prison sentences given to youthful offenders. The sponsor, state Rep. Mike Weinstein, a Jacksonville Republican, is a prosecutor.
The bill also illustrates the difficulty faced by legislation perceived as being lenient on criminals. When Weinstein introduced the bill two years ago, he was labeled a "liberal." In a recent committee hearing, he began with a disclaimer: "This isn't a massive prison release system."
"Republicans worked a long time to do away with parole and some of them were reluctant to even crack the door," Weinstein said. "But the pendulum is coming the other way."
But not all lawmakers are softening their views. Other measures to add to the "hate crimes" statute and enhance the eligibility for the death penalty continue to get broad support.
"The No. 1 priority should always be public safety," said Republican Sandy Adams, the chairwoman of the House criminal justice budget committee and a former sheriff's deputy. "I don't believe we need to let criminals out of institutions just for budget purposes."
A number of law enforcement officials see it differently, including Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee. "The only way to take (public safety) to the next level is through a good re-entry and recidivism program," he said. "When people listen to the facts, they are starting to understand."
Times/Herald staff writer Beth Reinhard contributed to this report. John Frank can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.