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It takes a systems approach to improve public safety in Florida

Florida seems to realize that it can no longer afford to purchase public safety at exorbitant prices that offer little return on investment. With an incarceration rate 26 percent higher than the national norm and an inmate growth rate three times the national average (from 2000 to 2008), we have seen only diminishing reductions in crime rates recently.

At the same time, other states large (Texas, New York, New Jersey) and small (Kansas, Michigan, Indiana) have been able to slow or halt prison construction and decrease or even reverse inmate growth rates, thereby saving significant amounts in public spending while simultaneously improving public safety.

But while Florida's new administration, and the Legislature about to go into session, have decried the unaffordable costs, few of our political leaders seem to realize that isolated fixes to the criminal justice system will not save money or improve public safety. For example, the Corrections Department receives much criticism for high recidivism rates (that is, 33 percent within three years; 65 percent within five), but a focus on re-entry that commences upon incarceration will be meaningless without corresponding appropriations for substance abuse and mental health treatment, literacy education, and job training while in prison.

Expanding drug courts (rightly praised for their low costs and high success rates) will fall short of expectations without corresponding relief in existing restrictions on pretrial and post-adjudicatory diversion, mandatory sentencing laws, and intake screening procedures to determine which offender would do best under varying types of treatment and supervision.

Indeed, passionate advocacy and political rhetoric often displace the holistic analysis and integrated action (statutory, procedural and regulatory) necessary to establish a well-coordinated criminal justice system. Neither zealous support of privatization nor fervent appeal for more faith-based prisons will solely improve public safety, lower public costs or ensure greater justice. Cutting corrections officials and probation officers wholesale does not, by any stretch of the imagination, imply greater public safety at lowered a cost.

Denuding prisons of medical staffers — especially of mental health workers — and replacing their services (if at all) with favored privatized contracts will neither lower recidivism rates nor improve the health and security of those incarcerated or those that manage them, and in the long run promise to greatly escalate medical and, ultimately, legal costs. A vow to cut the Corrections Department budget by $1 billion (or 40 percent) rings hollow unless there is a plan in place to do so prudently.

Fortunately, some of Florida's legislators heard the message of Texas legislator Jerry Madden when he recently came to speak to them: It takes a systems approach (Madden prides himself on his engineering background at West Point) to make the coordinated changes necessary to both lower costs and improve public safety.

Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, for example, has advanced a bill that combines re-entry and drug courts as a smart way to lower recidivism rates while correcting the underlying problem of addiction. Rep. Ari Porth is taking a serious look at the cost effectiveness of mandatory sentencing laws in terms of public safety, recidivism and public expenditures. Rep. Dennis Baxley and Rep. Bill Snyder (who has a strong background in law enforcement) have shown a great deal of interest in innovative ways to improve public safety with smarter criminal justice approaches.

And Sen. Mike Fasano, under fire from some for asking the hard questions, gets credit for asking the hard questions that a systemic approach demands. Others, such as Sen. Arthenia Joyner, have long known what was needed; the current budget crunch finally has given her and others the attention on these issues they deserve.

Simultaneously, in the executive branch, Attorney General Pam Bondi has stepped to the fore in recognizing that public safety is gained with good laws, strong law enforcement, and the best use of well-integrated human and technological processes (that is, improved community supervision, better monitoring — to include prescription drug monitoring — and supervised treatment for behavioral health disorders). But she, too, should consider all parts of the system; rolling back recent accommodations in civil rights restoration, as she has recommended, is likely to cause higher, not lower, recidivism rates.

The one commonality among all of the states that have succeeded in enhancing public safety while lowering costs has been an integrated, holistic criminal justice system. The central tenets involve pretrial and sentencing procedures that target likely successful nonviolent candidates for community intervention based on established criteria and data; quick and certain sanctions for violations of community supervision conditions; recidivism reductions based on inmates successfully completing in-prison programs; post-incarceration supervision decisions based on inmates' behavior while in prison; the use of screening tools at sentencing and incarceration that guide judges and corrections officials in understanding options, risks, and costs and merging those considerations with the needs of the offender; and, ultimately, shifting available resources from incarceration costs to courts and community supervision services.

Florida and its leaders should be more than up to the challenge of equaling the success seen elsewhere. Indeed, given current budget conditions, we have no other choice.

Jim McDonough, former director of the Florida Department of Corrections, is currently affiliated with the Collins Center for Public Policy. He has also worked with Florida Tax Watch and the Coalition for Smart Justice on criminal justice reform.

It takes a systems approach to improve public safety in Florida 03/03/11 [Last modified: Thursday, March 3, 2011 3:09pm]

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