Column: New prison approaches save money, increase safety

The Florida Department of Corrections is testing the waters about cranking up the prison machine again with its recent request to the Legislature for $59 million to open nine previously shuttered facilities: two prisons, five work camps and two re-entry centers. If we allow it, Florida will be poorer and less safe.

There are better, more effective and less expensive alternatives, and we don't have to go any further than the Georgia to see them. Georgia has joined a growing number of states such as Texas, North Carolina and Kansas that are choosing better, smarter, cheaper, safer paths. Florida can too.

Florida, like many states, went on a prison-building binge during between 1980 and 2010, going from an inmate population of just under 20,000 ($169 million) in 1980 to 102,000 in 2010 ($2.4 billion) as tough-on-crime policies drove increases in the rate of incarceration. We have steadily seen crime decrease, which is in part attributable to incarceration, but only in part. Incarcerating dangerous criminals is a public safety imperative and nonnegotiable. But we have learned that mass incarceration offers diminishing returns and a negative cost-benefit ratio.

By 2010, Florida was spending more general revenue on corrections than on the State University System. Yes, crime was going down in Florida and nationally, but it has gone down just as fast and in some cases faster in states such as New York and Texas that are turning to smarter solutions. What other states are learning, and banking in savings, is that it is the responsibility of the state to its residents to decrease incarceration rates, lower crime rates and save taxpayer dollars.

As late as 2009, the Department of Corrections was proposing new prisons at a cost of billions to taxpayers. Gov. Rick Scott's election was, in no small measure, hinged upon fixing this broken system. His administration found 12,000 empty prison beds, fully staffed, and began to shut them down. Veterans' dorms were created to complement the effective use of specialized veterans' courts. Money was moved for increased drug treatment, policies were adopted to allow the expansion of education programs, and efforts continue to increase the number of faith- and character-based beds, proven to reduce recidivism.

These were conservative moves and headed in the right direction. The initial results were encouraging. Closing prisons and reducing recidivism rates (a fancy term for "he got out and robbed your grandmother") were the objectives, and they were met. So why are we reopening prisons?

One-third of Florida's prisoners leave every year, and a similar number return within three years. As Newt Gingrich reminds us, if 45 percent of public school students dropped out, or a third of all bridges built collapsed within three years, would citizens tolerate it?

What appeared as a relatively stable prison population (and the impetus for recent prison closings) is now reversed, with an increase of nearly 6 percent projected over the next five years. Last year our inmate population dropped below 100,000, and in February 2013 we were looking at a 1.8 percent increase over the next five years. Now we are looking at a 5.7 percent increase over the next five years, to 106,973. And our budget? It's creeping back up again, to a proposed $2.3 billion. More revealing, perhaps, is a breakdown of expenditures from last year's annual Department of Corrections report: 67 percent for institutions, 19 percent health, 10 percent community corrections, 2 percent administration, and 2 percent programs and education.

Georgia was looking at an 8 percent increase and an increased cost of more than $264 million when public officials blew the whistle and came together. They committed to stopping growth and advancing public safety and to turning from status quo mass incarceration to strategic justice investments (like strengthening probation and drug treatment) and, where appropriate, refinement of sentencing (increasing as well as decreasing). And now they are projected to stop this growth and avert these costs.

It's simply a choice Florida has yet to make: Stop, roll up our sleeves, bring a consensus group together to review our situation and reinvest and rigorously evaluate new policies and practices aimed at slowing prison growth, saving money and increasing public safety.

We believe it is more imperative than ever that Florida embrace a nonpartisan, multi-stakeholder review commission to take on this challenge.

If Georgia and Texas can figure this out, why can't Florida try?

Allison DeFoor is the board chair of the Project on Accountable Justice at Florida State University, a consortium that includes St. Petersburg College, Tallahassee Community College and Baylor University in Texas. He is a former judge and sheriff in the Keys, and he was vice chair of the Republican Party of Florida. He is now an Episcopal priest who works in prisons. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

Column: New prison approaches save money, increase safety 11/08/13 [Last modified: Monday, November 11, 2013 10:43pm]

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