As the number of inmates increases, Florida will have to build 10 more prisons in five years just to keep up. The bulging prisons are a result of criminal justice policies that get passed in a virtual information vacuum. Legislators adopt new criminal laws and enhance penalties on existing ones without considering how their handiwork impacts the system as a whole. Two years ago there was an unsuccessful attempt to create a fact-finding panel to comprehensively study the state's sentencing policies. Now lawmakers should try again to get a better view of the entire system.
Florida spends more than $20,000 to keep someone in prison for a year, and the prison population exceeds 100,000. The state incarcerates a higher proportion of nonviolent offenders than it did 15 years ago, and the costs outweigh the benefits.
Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe and Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger both point to the same change in law that greatly increased their workload. When the Legislature enhanced the penalties for the crime of driving on a suspended license from a misdemeanor to a felony upon a third offense, the number of defendants facing incarceration shot up. McCabe says he saw 70 new felonies a month in Pinellas County and no new funding to meet the extra demands. In 2008, more people were sentenced to county jail in Florida for that driving offense than any other except drugs or theft. It's an unjustifiable drain on resources.
Had the Sentencing Policy Advisory Council passed by the Senate two years ago been established, it could be pointing out anomalies like this. The panel was to take a holistic approach, issuing findings and recommendations on all manner of sentencing and incarceration policies. But the House refused to go along. The compromise was the establishment of a Correctional Policy Advisory Council that would look at what the prison system is doing and the effectiveness of various Department of Corrections programs. Yet the council has never met and is scheduled to be abolished next year. There is no money for staff to do the work.
Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Appropriations Committee, wants to prod the council to start meeting. He and Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, who chairs the Committee on Criminal Justice, should also push to expand the panel's mission to look more like the original sentencing council.
There seems to be a spreading acceptance among Republicans that the state can no longer afford its lock-'em-up approach to criminal justice. In his $2.5 billion budget proposal for corrections, Gov. Charlie Crist is supporting expanded re-entry programs as a way to reduce recidivism. The programs operate with work-release centers, assisting inmates with job training and services to help them re-enter society upon release. A second look is also being given to a bill to give youthful offenders a chance to have a lengthy sentence reduced.
Florida's prison population has doubled since 1993. There are ways to sensibly slow this growth, and some ideas will be explored during the coming session. But without better information, there is no way for lawmakers to make educated judgments.
Building more prisons shouldn't be Florida's primary criminal justice strategy. It appears some of the state's leaders are finally starting to agree.