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Instead of building more prisons, why not produce fewer criminals?

One of the more encouraging things happening in Florida is the movement for "smart justice." The goal is to reduce the number of repeat offenses by ex-inmates.

This would be a good idea.

No, it would be a great idea.

As matters stand now, almost exactly 33 percent of those released from Florida prison are back behind bars within three years.

This means the population keeps growing, and we have to keep building prisons. They cost $100 million a pop to build, and $25 million a year to run.

We just passed 100,000 inmates in the state prison system. Last year the whole shebang cost us $2.4 billion.

So …

What if we could turn out inmates who were less likely to re-offend? We would save tax dollars, reduce future crime, and maybe even salvage some lives.

There's no single magic wand to do this. But there are several tools that seem to be working, such as:

• "Re-entry" programs that begin to prepare inmates for their return to society as the end of their sentence approaches.

• Treatment for mental health issues or substance abuse, which affect a large percentage of the prison population. This might be the best money spent ever — some programs have dramatically cut that 33 percent, three-year recidivism rate.

• "Character-based" programs based on broad networks of community volunteers working with inmates in a structured curriculum.

You will not be surprised to learn that the Florida Legislature has declined to expand or has even cut some programs in recent years, especially in substance abuse treatment.

This brings us to the group called the "Coalition for Smart Justice," which held a "justice summit" on Monday and Tuesday in Tampa. About 300 people attended.

The coalition has a fascinating array of signers: past state attorneys general and corrections secretaries, social and political leaders, law enforcement and prosecutors.

It's interesting that some of the backers are business groups: Florida TaxWatch, the Florida Chamber of Commerce Foundation, Associated Industries of Florida.

"If we're going to be taxed," Associated Industries chief Barney Bishop told the audience during a panel discussion, "we want to get the most bang for the buck."

Three department heads under Gov. Charlie Crist were there: Walt McNeil of Corrections, George Sheldon of Children and Families, and Frank Peterman of Juvenile Justice.

McNeil said he hopes that by expanding these efforts, Florida can reduce its 33 percent rate by 18 to 20 percentage points by 2014.

The main challenge to the Coalition for Smart Justice is political. It has to prove to the Legislature that reducing future crime is actually more "conservative" than just building prison after prison.

Nobody is talking about throwing open prison doors.

Nobody is talking about hand-holding, mollycoddling or feeling sorry for criminals.

Most of all, nobody is talking about not sending to prison the people who ought to be there.

What they are talking about is whether we can keep more of them from coming back.

Learn more about the Coalition for Smart Justice on the Web site of the Collins Center for Public Policy at Florida State University:

Instead of building more prisons, why not produce fewer criminals? 11/18/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 18, 2009 6:48pm]
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