TAMPA — Florida ranks near the top of the nation on spending for its prison system, according to research by the Pew Center on the States.
A group of stakeholders who want to see that money used in other ways to reduce crime and rehabilitate offenders will spend the next two days in Tampa plotting a path to change.
"Florida has a huge prison system, enormous costs, and yet it isn't seeing anywhere near the crime reduction that it should be getting for all that spending," said Adam Gelb, director for the Pew Center on the States Public Safety Performance Project.
Pew, which drives initiatives to advance state policies that serve the public interest, has its sights set on Florida.
It wants to help the state reform its growing prison system by establishing cost-efficient alternatives for reducing crime instead of building more prisons and jails.
Gelb speaks today in Tampa to several hundred people attending the Justice Summit, a first-time event put on by the Collins Center for Public Policy, which has offices in Tallahassee, Miami and Sarasota.
"What we need in this state is some bold leadership around these things," said Angela Young, vice president for the Collins Center's Criminal Justice Initiatives. "We need a better-informed public that advocates for smarter justice."
Florida now incarcerates more than 100,000 people in state prison. Another 100,000 are under some form of court-ordered supervision, according to the state Department of Corrections. Within three years of release, about one-third of inmates are back in custody. The DOC is the state's largest agency with a budget of more than $2 billion.
"When we don't do transition preparation or some kind of rehabilitation in prison, we make it likely that folks will not be successful," Young said. "We know all that. We don't plan as if we know it. We don't make policy as if we know it. We don't budget as if we know it. We don't cooperate across agencies as if we know it."
Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Walter McNeil has acknowledged that prison systems cut programs first when budgets grow tight.
"We stop being the Department of Corrections and start being the 'Department of Incarceration,'" McNeil said.
The state has tried to fight that, he said.
McNeil will be among the those speaking during the summit. Joining him will be Florida Department of Children and Families Secretary George Sheldon for a discussion on the state's perspective and vision.
State attorneys, public defenders and business leaders are also scheduled to speak.
What the partners meeting in Tampa this week ultimately hope to do is get Florida legislators to share their vision, create laws that reflect their approach and shift money to pay for proven programs that work better than incarceration.
"It used to be that the only issue for state policymakers was, 'How do I demonstrate that I'm tough on crime?' " Gelb said. "They're starting to ask a very different question, which is, 'How do I get taxpayers a better return on their investment in public safety?' "
He said state leaders across the country are recognizing that prisons are a government spending program. As such, they should be subject to a cost-benefit test, Gelb said.
"When you can put together a package of policy options that's a win/win, less crime and lower costs, it's not a slam dunk," Gelb said, but "it's very hard to ignore, especially when the economy is in such trouble."
Kevin Graham can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3433.