Florida's Republican-led Legislature, desperate to find cost savings, is being told that diversion programs, drug treatment and flexible sentencing reforms are the best ways to pare back the Department of Corrections' $2.4 billion budget. Fiscal conservatives now have a decision to make: either turn to more therapeutically oriented and holistic criminal justice policies, or keep building prisons that warehouse people and bust the budget.
The need for reform is real. Florida's decades of get-tough-on-crime policies — including minimum mandatory sentences and three strikes you're out — have swollen the state's prison population to more than 100,000 and shortchanged rehabilitation in the process. The bottom line delivered to lawmakers this week: The only way to save significant money is to keep people out of prison or move them out sooner.
On Monday, Texas state Rep. Jerry Madden, R-Plano, who sponsored cost-effective prison reform legislation in his state, told Florida senators his ideas, which include those routinely dismissed by Republicans as being too liberal. Madden advocates spending money on programs for prisoners who have a good chance of staying out of prison if they receive treatment for drug and alcohol abuse or mental health problems.
Madden's other cost savers include giving judges more flexibility on sentencing, creating school programs that target children at high risk for turning to crime, and easing penalties on parole violations and small drug possessions to keep relatively minor offenses from evolving into major prison sentences.
The recommendations track many of those made by Florida TaxWatch, the state's business-backed fiscal watchdog group. On Tuesday, TaxWatch presented recommendations before some of the same senators that it claims could save nearly $400 million.
TaxWatch found that converting the last 20 percent of nonviolent offenders' prison sentences to electronic monitoring (such as an ankle bracelet) would save the state more than $43 million annually and reduce the likelihood of recidivism. TaxWatch also recommends reducing penalties for low-level marijuana possession, giving judges more discretion in sentencing, and expanding drug court diversion programs by qualifying more categories of offenders. It calls for more state investment in offender treatment, education and re- entry programs.
One of TaxWatch's most significant recommendations is to add flexibility to the current rule that requires inmates to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences. This alone could save the state up to $53 million annually.
Clearly, the best way to save hundreds of millions of dollars in prison costs is to adopt policies that invest in turning low-level offenders into productive citizens. If there is one positive that could come out of the state's fiscal crisis, it's a more rational and fiscal conservative criminal justice policy.