TALLAHASSEE — A year after Florida closed several prisons to save money, the state says it must reopen some of them because of projections of a growing inmate population.
The Department of Corrections wants the Legislature to appropriate $59 million to open nine shuttered facilities next year from Miami to the Panhandle, including two prisons, five work camps and two re-entry centers. The prisons, in Raiford and Polk City, were closed in July 2012 and were touted by Gov. Rick Scott as good-news, cost-cutting steps in the budget.
The new request is based on a July forecast from the state Criminal Justice Estimating Conference showing that even as the crime rate continues to drop, new admissions to the prison system are rising. They are projected to increase by 2.7 percent next year and 1.4 percent the following year, requiring more than 1,000 new prison beds.
The current inmate population is about 101,000.
Scott, who's seeking re-election in 2014, recently asked state agencies to cut spending by $100 million, but the prison system alone wants $124 million more next year, including money for more officers, new buses and vans, the food service system and an electronic timekeeping system.
The sudden shift is reviving the debate over whether Florida locks up too many nonviolent drug offenders who should get treatment, not just punishment. Florida has the nation's third-largest prison system and spends about $18,000 a year on average to house each of its inmates. Nearly three of every 10 inmates are back behind bars within three years.
"They're not getting treatment. They're being housed, and I don't know how smart that is," said Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, at a recent hearing of the committee he chairs, which oversees the prison system's $2.4 billion budget.
"This is the perfect opportunity for us to re-engineer our criminal sentencing laws and save money at the same time," said Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, also a member of the Senate budget committee overseeing prisons. "We need to have a real conversation about who we're putting in prison and whether that's best for the state."
Across the country, bipartisan support has been building for a concept known as "smart justice," which includes putting fewer nonviolent offenders in prison, improving re-entry and probation programs, and teaching inmates skills so they can acquire jobs.
At Florida State University's Project for Accountable Justice, researcher Deborrah Brodsky said Florida should follow the example of Georgia, whose conservative Republican leaders have embraced the "smart justice" concept.
"Other very conservative states have shown that you can choose different paths," said Allison deFoor, a former Monroe County sheriff and judge and chairman of the FSU project's board.
Moreover, they say, the prison system should become more strategic, like Florida's Department of Juvenile Justice, which stresses prevention, diversion and intervention with families instead of incarceration.
But talk of modifying Florida's sentencing laws is an especially tough sell in an election year when most lawmakers will make traditional appeals to voters that they are tough on crime.
A study released last year by the Pew Center on the States found that the average offender spent 166 percent more time in prison in 2009 than in 1990 and that nonviolent drug offenders served 194 percent more time — a bigger increase than any other state at an annual cost to Florida taxpayers of about $1.4 billion.
In its budget request for next year, the Florida prison system is seeking $58.8 million to hire 862 workers by June 2015. That would undercut Scott's emphasis on steadily cutting the size of the state workforce.
Scott must decide whether to include the request to reopen the prisons and work camps in the election-year budget he'll send to the Legislature in February.
Contact Steve Bousquet at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.