Florida needs a stronger prison system | Editorial
Set the right goal, then take the steps necessary to get there.
Mark. S, Inch, secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections.
Mark. S, Inch, secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections. [ SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Apr. 2
Updated Apr. 2

Florida’s prison system doesn’t work — not for the overworked and underpaid guards, not for the inmates who eventually get out and not for the taxpayers who deserve better from their investment in criminal justice. That’s why the Senate debate this week over reforming the system fell so short in addressing this years-old problem.

Senate Republican leaders appear to be in a standoff with the state’s top prison chief over the budget and potential closings. A proposed $140 million budget reduction would require the Department of Corrections to come up with a plan to shutter at least four state prisons by the end of the year. But Corrections Secretary Mark Inch said the cuts would only exacerbate the prisons’ problems. And he has warned for months that the prison system lacks the capacity to absorb the closure of some facilities. The reality is that there are pressures on both the purse strings and the prison system. As lawmakers fashion a budget in the coming weeks, they should focus on core improvements that would make the system stronger, safer and more accountable.

Boost pay and training. How can you run an operation where more than four in 10 new employees leave within their first year? While lawmakers have approved hiring bonuses, pay increases and retention bonuses for some corrections officers, it hasn’t been enough to stem attrition. Officers with a base salary of about $34,000 can earn more as city police officers or county deputy sheriffs. While Gov. Ron DeSantis has proposed more retention bonuses, training support and other targeted incentives this year, the prison system will not compete without a major increase in correctional officers’ salaries. Plugging these shortages would not only save Florida taxpayers tens of millions of dollars in overtime pay, but make for a safer environment for officers and inmates alike.

Slow the prison pipeline. The Legislature’s proposed budget cuts could have one unintended benefit: the early release of some prisoners who pose little public danger. But that decision should be made on its merits, not because lawmakers choose to shortchange the prison system. This involves a multi-pronged approach — reducing some felony drug crimes to misdemeanors, scaling back minimum mandatory sentences that lump all criminals together and releasing more older prisoners who are unlikely to commit additional crimes. Florida should also pull back on the requirement that inmates complete at least 85 percent of their sentences before being considered for early release. For many — especially non-violent offenders — 60 or 65 percent is a more reasonable requirement. Florida also needs to fund more education, vocational training and life-skills programs to keep those released from committing more crimes and returning to jail.

Increase accountability. Lawmakers also need to acknowledge how their own indifference over the years has contributed to a prison system besieged with poor morale, crumbling facilities and an aging (and costlier) inmate population. To that end, if consolidation is on the table, it should start with eliminating the seven, privately run prisons in Florida. Eliminating the profit motive is a first step in having every player in Florida’s prison system pulling in the same direction. A wholly public system would make prison management and the Legislature more accountable. It would bring more scrutiny to how the entire system operates and give lawmakers a more holistic view to make better policy choices. Taxpayers would also have a better idea what they are getting from their money and their elected representatives. The dual system of public and private operations is emblematic of a system where blame gets passed around.

There’s a legitimate debate over the size of the prison system and the best, affordable tools for operating it safely. But that starts with acknowledging a range of hard facts, from the terrible aspects of working as a corrections officer to the political opportunism behind some sentencing practices. The Legislature needs to bring its resources behind a strategy that better promotes both public safety and the public good.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.