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Unwarranted hysteria

The hysteria surrounding the early release of hundreds of felons from Florida prisons knows no limits. Lee County Sheriff John McDougall even told a national television audience that tourists should avoid the state. That gross exaggeration led to screaming headlines in British tabloids, such as Florida Killers' Alert.

Meanwhile, the Florida Legislature is pursuing a mindless knee-jerk reaction at warp speed. Some lawmakers want to rush through a high-tech plan to outfit several thousand prisoners with ankle bracelets when they are released and monitor their movements with a satellite system. Without even knowing the total cost, they are prepared to spend more monitoring an ex-inmate for a year than the state spends in general tax dollars on each public school student. The lawmakers who are most eager to spend $7-million so probation officers can step up visits with prisoners who are released early are the same lawmakers who have their hands in their pockets when it is time to vote to spend more money on social services.

Legislators, the sheriff and many other law enforcement officials are reacting irresponsibly to the releases that they should have known were inevitable. Such self-serving demagoguery should not cloud the facts and frighten residents and tourists.

The truth is that Florida's crime rate has been dropping since 1992, although updated statistics will not be available until later this month. The state sentencing guidelines have been rewritten so that the most dangerous criminals receive the toughest sentences. All inmates entering the prison system now are required to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences. Several years ago, inmates served an average of just 33 percent of their sentences because of prison overcrowding.

The truth is that McDougall and other law enforcement officials could make similarly rash statements every month. More than 20,000 inmates are released from Florida prisons every year. Some do commit more crimes. Some of the several hundred who are winning early release now also may commit new crimes, but their impact on the state's crime rate and safety should not be exaggerated.

The truth is that Attorney General Bob Butterworth never should have bowed to public sentiment and issued opinions that concluded changes affecting inmates' eligibility for early release and good behavior credits could be applied retroactively. While it was prudent to stop awarding those credits, the U.S. Constitution clearly prohibits laws that retroactively increase the punishment for a crime.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 16 years ago that states cannot take away release credits inmates already have earned. It should have come as no surprise last month when the U.S. Supreme Court issued a unanimous opinion that Florida could not take away early release credits.

The truth is that McDougall is merely seeking publicity for himself and an ill-conceived effort to amend the Florida Constitution to require all inmates to serve 85 percent of their sentences. The 85 percent requirement already is state law, and placing it in the constitution is unnecessary and unwise. Lawmakers still could lower prison sentences to adjust the prison population if another overcrowding problem occurred.

The early release of several hundred prisoners should not give tourists any second thoughts about visiting Florida. They may have more to fear from Sheriff McDougall and state legislators who have no appreciation for the impact of their public statements or for protections guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.