Florida's inmate population is growing and is expected to require the reopening of prison facilities closed a year ago. That may be inevitable, but a smarter long-term approach would be for Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature to save money by embracing criminal justice reforms that would reduce mandatory prison sentences for nonviolent crimes.
Florida lawmakers have been hearing for at least the last couple of years about "justice reinvestment" initiatives, but the message has not sunk in. A Texas Republican lawmaker in 2011 shared his state's experience focusing resources on substance abuse and mental health treatment programs, giving judges more flexibility on sentencing and enhancing local probation and parole supervision. Recent incarceration rates in Texas have fallen by more than 10 percent. Georgia officials were in Tallahassee in September explaining how they expect to improve public safety by making laws for drug possession less punitive, among other reforms.
At least 17 states have enacted some form of reinvestment legislation, according to the Urban Institute, including many under Republican control. Earlier this year Florida TaxWatch, the state's business-backed fiscal watchdog, issued a report from its Center for Smart Justice detailing ways Florida could use evidence-based approaches to reduce incarceration rates and recidivism. But it will take the willingness of Scott and legislative leaders to put aside the "tough on crime" rhetoric during an election year and focus on what is best for Florida.
The state houses 101,000 inmates at a systemwide cost of $2.4 billion. Who is the state locking up? More than 60 percent of those admitted to prison in 2011 and 2012 were nonviolent offenders, many with substance abuse problems and about 20 percent with mental health problems.
States have found that diversionary treatment programs, expanded work-release and community-based supervision for nonviolent, lower-level crimes save money and don't jeopardize public safety. And if Florida wants to reduce recidivism, it has to help inmates reintegrate into society once released. Every year 33,000 inmates or more are released from the state's prisons, and more than 80 percent of them receive no counseling or other help adjusting to society after their release.
The Department of Corrections wants $59 million to reopen nine facilities next year, including two prisons that Scott boasted about closing in 2012. Prison admissions are expected to rise 2.7 percent next year, and the prison system is asking for $124 million more overall. But Scott hasn't been open to even modest reforms. Last year, he vetoed a measure supported by conservative legislators to allow about 300 inmates addicted to drugs to move from prison into intensive treatment after serving half of their sentences.
Florida should start following the smart justice example of Texas and Georgia. It saves money, helps those convicted improve their lives and still protects society.