Prisons are expanding faster than schools in Florida, and Department of Corrections Secretary Walt McNeil is offering a compelling strategy for reducing the cost. He would build smaller, less elaborate prisons closer to home for short-term nonviolent offenders. His approach could help lawmakers restore some semblance of budgetary balance, and it is worth serious consideration.
McNeil likens such institutions to a state "jail," and he believes they would save money while giving inmates a better shot at real rehabilitation. One of the problems in most big prison settings is that drug offenders and thieves end up learning from murderers and robbers. The result is they leave prison more dangerous than when they went in.
The smaller jails, by contrast, would be reserved for offenders who are sentenced to less than two years for crimes that involve no violence. Those types of inmates are more likely to succeed in programs, such as drug and alcohol rehabilitation or job skills, that can keep them from repeating their crimes. Locating the jails close to the inmates' communities also helps them maintain family ties that are critical for their return to society.
The financial reality facing the state is grim. McNeil projects the prison population, now at 98,000, will grow to 125,000 inmates by 2012. The price tag to fill that gap with more high-cost, deep-end prisons is at least $2-billion. But the state budget is still in the midst of a historic shortfall, and McNeil, a former Tallahassee police chief, knows there are too few dollars to go around.
"We can't just build our way out of this problem," he says.
Florida is not alone in coping with a surging prison population. Other states are turning to some comparatively radical approaches. California is looking at early release and unsupervised parole for as many as 22,000 nonviolent inmates. Kentucky is turning to house arrest. Mississippi is reducing some inmates' sentences by as much as 75 percent.
McNeil's plan is more measured. He's not asking to turn any inmates loose. Instead, he wants to use the jail concept to find better ways to punish small-time offenders. The legislative impulse to send every felon to the Big House, behind those razor-wire fences in rural prison complexes, has not helped. That's part of the reason the prison population continues to soar.
As it now stands, taxpayers end up providing room, board and medical care not just to the most dangerous. They also subsidize the one of every three inmates who are convicted of drug and nonviolent crimes.
In some cases, imprisonment is not a smart approach, particularly when it leaves victims with no restitution and criminals rushing through a revolving door. If an offender is not a physical threat and in prison for a short stay, why not make him work and pay back the victim?
McNeil might well encounter resistance from urban areas that don't want jails in their backyards and rural counties that want all the prison jobs to themselves. But he is on the right track. Florida now spends $20,000 a year to house each inmate, nearly three times what it spends to educate each school student. The less it does of the former, the more it can do of the latter.