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James R. McDonough

Florida must do more than build prisons

Florida can be made safer from the threat of crime by spending less money on prisons. Our current rate of incarceration has led to an all time high of more than 100,000 prisoners. And the state is expected to need to build a dozen more prisons in the next few years, at a cost of $100 million each, plus an annual $25 million to operate each of them. It is time to review our criminal justice approach to see if we can do things a little smarter, significantly safer, and a lot cheaper.

Early release is not an option, since the first priority must be public safety, except for some very old or infirm inmates who present no further threat but strain the system's medical resources. Nor is it fair to victims to lessen sentences. By and large law enforcement authorities, from deputies to prosecutors and court officials, have worked hard to keep the public safe by arresting, convicting and incarcerating those who do us harm.

What we need are steps that would lower recidivism. Currently, we can expect that one-third of all ex-offenders will return to prison within three years. Two-thirds will return within five years. These repeat offenders represent about half of those entering Florida's prisons. Each one of these returnees, no doubt, commits an average of more than one felony before being caught, tried and convicted. Each year, 40,000 inmates leave Florida prisons. The net effect is hundreds of thousands of crimes, similar numbers of innocent victims and ever more prison construction. Like compounded interest, the cost to the state quickly becomes astronomical.

By focusing on three areas — prudent intake, better use of incarcerated time and smooth reintegration into the community — recidivism can be lowered, perhaps by as much as half. We must ensure that the truly criminal are held responsible for their crimes. We must also recognize when incarceration is not the best resolution. For example, substance abusers or mentally ill whose crimes are relatively minor and most likely generated by their underlying afflictions might best be diverted to programs that compel them to address their addictions/mental illness under sanction of law.

Second, recognizing that about 90 percent of state prisoners are released at some point, it is in the interest of public safety for a sentence to be truly "corrective." With minor investment, programs that address inmates' underlying addictions and/or mental illness provide for the development of employment skills, increase educational levels, teach simple life-management skills and offer faith-based underpinnings. The programs can increase an inmate's chance of success outside prison while simultaneously saving the public enormous costs of new prisons.

Third, it is insufficient to send the inmate out the prison gate with a hundred dollars, a bus ticket, what's left of a 30-day prescription for mental illness, and a stern warning to not come back. We need a true reintegration effort that would involve the labor market, local law enforcement, the faith-based community, mental health and substance abuse treatment services, housing and others to lessen the probability of a return to crime. A combination of proactive reintegration efforts — such as providing an ex-offender a driver's license or ID card — and the constraints of a split-sentencing arrangement, such as spending the last 12 months of a sentence under the jurisdiction of a drug or mental health court, might offer the ex-offender the incentives, positive and negative, to "stay straight."

Fortunately, there is momentum for such better approaches. The governor has directed the Department of Corrections to invigorate its re-entry policies. Last legislative session, Rep. Sandy Adams, R-Orlando, and Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, sponsored a bill that expanded drug court options in lieu of incarceration. Duval County recently opened a community re-entry center in partnership with state and local agencies.

Florida can do better in providing greater public safety to its citizens by efficiently utilizing its limited resources to both incarcerate violent offenders and create diversion, treatment and re-entry strategies that steer ex-offenders away from a life of crime. No single entity can pretend to have all of the answers, but an informed discussion among serious parties can lead directly to better outcomes. Wise and committed individuals from all walks of life should be able to contribute to a menu of solutions to otherwise seemingly intractable problems that will in fact enhance, not degrade, public safety.

James R. McDonough served as Florida's secretary of the Department of Corrections from 2006 to 2008.

Florida must do more than build prisons 08/17/09 [Last modified: Monday, August 17, 2009 6:25pm]
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