Ed Buss has been on the job for less than two months, but Florida's new secretary of the Department of Corrections is off to a promising start. He is not interested in the tough-on-crime platitudes that have dominated state lawmaking for years. As the former head of the Indiana prison system, Buss knows that reducing a large prison population means keeping low-risk offenders out of prison and helping them to stay out. He would accomplish this by embracing progressive approaches to corrections reform such as ending some mandatory minimum sentencing. Whether Buss can get his agenda through the Legislature and the corrections officers union remains to be seen. Some of his ideas take the wrong direction, but many are worth pursuing.
As an outsider coming into the insular Department of Corrections, Buss has the experience and freedom to make needed changes. He already has fired more than a dozen top administrators from the ossified corrections hierarchy. He's looking at efficiencies in the way the department is structured, such as switching corrections officers from an eight-hour to a 12-hour shift. But his best ideas are those that would address recidivism by investing in prevention programs such as literacy, mental health and substance abuse treatment.
Housing inmates is expensive, and Florida has 102,000 of them. The state has the nation's third-largest penal system, costing more than $2.4 billion annually — more than twice what the state spends for its community college system. But despite the nearly $20,000 taxpayers spend to keep each inmate imprisoned for a year, there is not nearly enough spent to prepare these men and women to re-enter society upon release.
Buss wants to end the era of "tough love" for young offenders, which hasn't reduced crime. He endorses a refreshingly evidence-based approach with an emphasis on early intervention programs, vocational and educational training and drug treatment. Inevitably these investments will lower Florida's recidivism rate, which stands at about 33 percent over three years.
Buss is an encouraging appointment by Gov. Rick Scott, but where Scott's corrections program goes awry is in his attempt to wring millions of dollars from the budget by shifting to private prisons and probation services. Buss also wants to privatize all prison health care programs — something with which the state has had woeful experience. Injecting a profit motive into the provision of inmate health care is a recipe for abuse. Research shows private prisons save little if any money and have a questionable track record.
In other areas, Buss sounds positively progressive, such as his calls for abolishing certain mandatory minimum sentences and giving judges more discretion to divert people from prison if they don't belong there. Florida has clogged its criminal code with mandatory minimum sentences that cost the state in high incarceration rates as well as the loss of potentially productive members of society.
Buss had great success in Indiana, bringing efficiencies to that system and reducing the adult prison population. His attempt to transfer some of those methods to Florida is encouraging.