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Florida's prison problem could find a solution in Texas

If only Florida's economy could grow like its prisons.

The state has more than 100,000 prisoners for the first time in its history. It's expected to add 14,000 in the next five years, according to the Department of Corrections. Every 1,500 new inmates need a new prison. It costs $100 million to build one and $20 million a year to run. How can a state in a perpetual budget crisis pay for all that?

"It's currently unsustainable given our fiscal situation," said Florida Tax Watch general counsel Robert Weissert.

Florida is staring at a Texas-sized problem.

Fortunately, Texas might also have the solution.

Two years ago that state faced its own prison crisis: house 17,000 new inmates by 2012 at a cost of half a billion dollars.

But Texas never built any new prisons. Instead, for half that amount, it revamped its criminal justice system, reduced its prison population and became a national model for reform.

"We hit the perfect storm at the right time," Texas legislator Jerry Madden said at the Collins Center for Public Policy's Justice Summit this week in Tampa. "We were able to say we can do this for less and, oh, by the way, our results will be better."

Here's how Texas did it.

• • •

Madden, 65, was elected to the Texas House in 1992. An engineer by trade, he started his own insurance company. In 2005, the speaker of the house made Rep. Madden chairman of the committee overseeing Texas' prisons. He did so with this order:

"The boss said I can't build anymore," Madden said.

The state already had 150,000 prison beds, but anticipated the need for thousands more. Without more prisons, where would all those inmates go?

"In Texas it's not very popular to open the door and let them out," Madden said. "I don't think it works in Florida either."

Support for reform was already building with local criminal justice groups. Think tanks lent expertise and brought data analysis to Texas' prison problem. Madden joined with a Democrat, Sen. John Whitmire, to make reform bipartisan.

It wasn't a growing population or crime rate driving all those incarcerations. Except for a slight bump in 2007, Texas' index crime rate has fallen every year since 2002.

The problem, instead, was the state's policies and programs.

The Council of State Governments Justice Center identified three factors keeping prisons full: an 18 percent increase in probation revocations from 1997 to 2006; cuts in substance abuse and mental health programs; and fewer prisoners were being paroled, or released early from prison, than state rules allowed.

• • •

The solution: add substance abuse and mental health treatment beds; add short-term residential and outpatient treatment programs; add programs that would reduce probation violations and combat recidivism; and parole more eligible prisoners (Florida abolished parole for crimes committed after 1983).

In 2007, the Texas Legislature approved $241 million to do just that. The state added more than 10,000 slots for substance abuse and mental health treatment. Funding went to new residential facilities, halfway houses and outpatient programs. But the state actually saved tens of millions because it could scrap a new prison that no longer needed to be built.

Texas still has its problems. Not every proposed program is in place yet. Some communities opposed housing the new programs.

But the state's prison population has remained steady, and now a slight decrease is projected until 2012. The average number of probationers in 2008 was 168,788 — nearly 11,000 more than two years before. But revoked probations are only up slightly.

"It's incredibly impressive what was accomplished there," Adam Gelb, director of the Public Safety Performance Project for the Pew Center on States, told the summit audience. "It's a really strong example of what could happen in Florida."

• • •

Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Walt McNeil said the data suggests Texas' reforms could work in Florida. But his agency is already straining to pay for its own reforms aimed at reducing recidivism and improving treatment.

"It's difficult to ask for more money," McNeil said, "when we're trying to hold onto what we have."

Momentum for reform in Florida, though, seems to be building. Today, Sen. Victor Crist will hold a legislative workshop in Tampa focused solely on criminal justice issues. The Republican favors "early and effective" substance abuse and mental health treatment and wants to expand work-release programs.

But the political risk of reform can be great. Madden won a tight re-election race after his opponent labeled him soft on crime — and he's a conservative Republican.

Former Florida Gov. Buddy MacKay, a Democrat, told the audience that reform can only happen if both sides lay off the other.

"The leadership of both political parties is going to have to say that everybody's fingerprints are going to be on this," MacKay said.

But change could still come if only because it has to. As Crist put it: "This session, money is going to be tight, tempers are going to be hot, and ideas are going to be needed."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

>>Fast facts

Workshop today

Sen. Victor Crist is hosting a legislative workshop on criminal justice issues today at the University Area Community Center Complex at 14013 N 22nd St. in Tampa. Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp and legislators are expected to attend. The workshop will be from 8:30 to 11:30 a.m.

Florida's prison problem could find a solution in Texas 11/17/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 17, 2009 10:10pm]

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