Florida is showing signs of intelligent leadership in improving its criminal justice system in a way that enhances public safety while promising to decrease costs.
While other states (such as California) find themselves compelled to precipitously release inmates due to grossly unbalanced budgets and severe prison overcrowding, Florida is moving out smartly in incremental ways that would lessen crime, lower the recidivism rate, and end the massive money splurges on prison building (at $100 million a pop) and operations ($24 million a year per prison).
What is striking about this trend is that the leadership of it is no longer the sole purview of so-called "progressive" elements, but is being advanced from well-informed conservative bastions. For example, Florida TaxWatch, the highly respected budgetary watchdog, recently offered to the Legislature a list of 87 recommendations that go a long way toward closing the state's $3 billion-plus budget gap; 11 of those recommendations dealt with steps that would increase public safety while lowering prison growth.
Simultaneously, a group calling itself the Smart Justice Coalition and affiliated with the Collins Center for Public Policy, after hosting a well attended "Justice Summit" this past November, concluded that several politically conservative states, such as Texas, had successfully broken the code for less crime at lower public expense and that Florida could do likewise. Leaders in their call for smarter justice include Florida's business community, ably represented by one of their most powerful voices, Barney Bishop, the head of Associated Industries of Florida.
At the same time, the Republican-dominated Legislature in Tallahassee, led by powerful public safety champions such as Sen. Victor Crist of Tampa and Rep. Sandy Adams of Orlando, has shown remarkable wisdom in figuring out what works in reducing crime (such as diversion of nonviolent offenders to drug court in lieu of incarceration) while lowering costs and offering every chance of returning ex-offenders to the habits of civic responsibility.
Meanwhile, the Florida Department of Corrections, landlord for over 100,000 inmates and highly attuned to the impact of crime and public risk, has devoted much of its energy to a re-entry focus that seeks to integrate departing inmates back into Florida's communities with the best chance of ensuring they do not return to a life of crime.
Adhering to one big idea — that lowered recidivism rates mean less crime and, eventually, negative prison growth — these leaders recognize that achieving such ends must come with careful analysis and detailed follow-up. So when Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff of Fort Lauderdale sponsors a bill in the House (and Sen. Nan Rich of Weston does likewise in the Senate) that would create re-entry courts for departing inmates whose criminal pasts have been spurred at least in part by an underlying drug addiction (which is to say 65 percent of them), they know it costs the state nothing in current-year costs (and relatively little thereafter) but has the potential within two or three years to cut the prison growth rate (currently about 2,000 per year) by almost half (or by 800 per year). No surprise then that the Florida Office of Drug Control in the Governor's Office supports such a bill.
Other programs that cost only a small fraction of incarceration (such as job training, raising inmate reading and math skills a few grade levels, faith-based opportunities while incarcerated, life management skills, etc.) further reduce the likelihood of recidivism. Indeed, simple cost-neutral matters such as calling a meeting of the Correctional Policy Advisory Council — inexplicably overlooked despite being enacted in law two years ago — will serve to advance knowledgeable ways to improve the state criminal justice system.
We have reached a point where wasteful practices (of the public money as well as of human potential) can no longer be afforded. Wiser heads are leading a charge that asks: Why pay more for a less-safe Florida when we can spend less and be more secure? What was once cast as a partisan issue with one side depicted as too tough for its own (and the people's) good and the other as too soft, now becomes clear in the light of fiscal reality. Either we fight crime in intelligent, rational ways or we lavishly spend money that we don't have with little to show in return but more crime.
Jim McDonough is the former director of the Florida Department of Corrections and a member of the Coalition for Smart Justice.