There is strong evidence that the best way to reduce prison costs is to pump resources into substance abuse treatment, mental health services, education and job training. Investment in those programs can translate into big reductions in recidivism. But so far, lawmakers in Tallahassee haven't taken this cost-effective route to overhauling Florida's prison system. Instead they are poised to embark on a massive prison privatization experiment that poses risks to accountability and offers savings that are more illusory than real.
Both the House and Senate, heading into the final nine days of the legislative session, appear intent on turning over more of a core function of state government to private companies that have long been politically active in Tallahassee. The Senate would privatize all of the state's Department of Corrections facilities in the state's 18 counties south of Orlando. The House would privatize all prisons in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.
The professed motive is to save money, since state law requires private prisons to cost 7 percent less than comparable state facilities. But the evidence is weak that those cost savings actually materialize. The Legislature's own research agency, the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, has found it hard to quantify savings, particularly because contracts shield private prisons from accepting the costliest prisoners.
It's never an apples-to-apples comparison. The research office found that the medical costs of two state-run prisons, at $15.9 million, greatly outpaced those of two private prisons, $6.9 million, from 2007 to 2009. But only 16 percent of the inmates in one of the private prisons — the maximum under the contract — had special medical needs. One of the state prisons had 41 percent of inmates with special medical needs.
Plus, Florida's 15-year history with private prisons is far from reassuring. It has included lax contracts, spotty state oversight, overbilling by contractors and less legal accountability for abuses.
Unfortunately, a more productive and cost-effective approach to reducing Florida's corrections costs appears to have been cast aside by lawmakers after some early enthusiasm. In January, Texas state Rep. Jerry Madden, R-Plano, was invited to Tallahassee to share the reforms that saved his state significant money by reducing recidivism while still protecting public safety.
The philosophy, embraced by many in the law enforcement community, including former Gov. Jeb Bush's corrections director, Jim McDonough, is to invest in rehabilitation to reduce recidivism. This includes helping offenders control mental health or substance abuse problems and getting them the education and training they need to get jobs.
McDonough says statistics show that recidivism is reduced almost 40 percent with some degree of treatment, and it slides another 3 to 4 percent with every year of math and English literacy attained. The use of ankle bracelets and other forms of community control, instead of prison, also help keep nonviolent offenders attached to jobs and family while racking up major savings for the corrections system.
Lawmakers still haven't grasped the fact that the cost of warehousing 100,000-plus prisoners won't go away just because the state shifts their supervision to private companies. The best hope for saving money is to actually reduce the prison population by rehabilitating those offenders who are capable of being productive members of society. Republican leaders, apparently afraid of being painted as "soft on crime," are once again just shifting responsibility rather than making good policy. A little more political courage is needed before the state goes broke locking people up.