Editorial: Restore prison funding for health care, social services

Published May 7 2018
Updated May 11 2018

Florida lawmakers may have higher priorities than spending money on health care and social services for prison inmates. But itís simple: Pay now or pay later. Those inmates who re-enter society without kicking a drug habit or acquiring a basic education are more likely to commit more crimes, endangering public safety and costing taxpayers more in the process. The Legislature somehow failed to provide enough money for prisons, and now it has to fix its mistake before there is real harm.

Mary Ellen Klas of the Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau reported that the new $87 billion state budget that takes effect July 1 is short $28 million for prisons. The Department of Corrections had warned lawmakers in February that it needed more money to cover court-ordered health care services and to renew the health care contract for inmates. But lawmakers ignored the warning and made cuts, leaving the department without enough money to pay for inmate health care the state is legally required to provide.

To make up for the shortfall, Corrections Secretary Julie Jones has announced she is cutting substance abuse and mental health treatment programs and eliminating re-entry and work-release services that help prepare inmates for life out of prison. Documents show that community providers will have programs cut or eliminated, including millions of dollars cut from transitional housing, substance abuse and therapeutic treatments, and there will be a 40 percent cut in mental health programs. More than $2 million was cut from re-entry centers that give inmates a basic education.

Gov. Rick Scott had proposed spending enough to cover the gap in the prison budget, but it was not a priority for Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, and House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land OíLakes. And Scott didnít force the Legislature to increase the allocation when the budget gap became clear. Providers said the cuts will mean job reductions and layoffs, but the real cost will be to former inmates and communities. Felons already have a tough time re-acclimating into society. The substance abuse and mental health programs can help them get sober and emotionally prepared for a new life as productive citizens. Take away this safety net, and inmates are even less prepared to find a job and stay clean. Prison reform advocates say the cuts could lead to a spike in crime as offenders fall back into substance abuse and criminal activity ó and then back into the criminal justice system.

Helping break this cycle is not only the right thing to do ó itís also more cost-efficient. Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, is working on a legislative fix to fund these programs for the first part of the year until the Legislature returns in November for its organization session. This is a creative way to plug the funding gap and to spare these programs from major interruptions. But lawmakers knew what they were doing when they created the crisis, and they ignored how it would affect offenders, their families and their communities.

Brandes gets it; heís worked to provide more treatment and diversionary programs to non-violent offenders as a means to reduce the prison population, now at 96,000. "The status quo," he said, "is unacceptable and unsustainable." But he faces an uphill fight, as reflected by the Legislatureís decision to short-change the prison system at the expense of public safety. The entire state benefits when ex-offenders are prepared to be productive citizens. Having them fall back into a life of crime only means more victims and more money pouring into the prison pipeline.