Editorial: Florida's costly crime problem

Published June 13, 2014

Florida's pay-now, pay-later approach to criminal justice has set a new national low that illuminates the difference between looking tough and protecting the public. A new study shows that Florida releases a higher rate of inmates without any supervision or support than any other state in the nation. This is a recipe for more crime, more victims, more arrests and more untold millions spent on prisons with their revolving doors. The state needs a smarter approach that works both for public safety and the bottom line.

The Pew Charitable Trusts reported that a large and increasing number of inmates are "maxing out" — serving their sentences and leaving prison without any conditions or assistance that could keep them from returning to crime. Between 1990 and 2012, Pew found, the number of prisoners across the United States who maxed out grew by 119 percent, with one in five returning to their communities without any monitoring or other support to reintegrate into society.

Florida had the worst max-out rate in the nation, with two-thirds of those released leaving prison without supervision. That proportion has doubled over the two decades, and Florida's tough-talk culture is to blame. The state abolished parole in 1983, and in 1995 it imposed tough mandatory sentencing measures that have required virtually all inmates to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences.

There is no sense in refusing to accept the reality that ex-cons re-enter society and need help to be successful. Supervision has long been seen as a responsible step in helping offenders find a job, housing and a stable living environment. These are programs that can help break the cycle of crime. Pew found that inmates released under supervision are less likely to commit new crimes, and that states could save tens of millions of dollars in security and prison costs.

Florida needs to expand these programs. Almost half of its inmates are imprisoned on drug and property crimes — hardly a lost population. Yet more than one in four inmates who are released later are convicted of new crimes and return to prison. Monitoring these convicts and steering them toward productive lives could cut crime and save big money. Nearly one-fourth of offenders on community supervision last year had their freedom yanked because of a technical violation. This is preventable. And the cost of supervising an offender, about $5 a day, is 10 times less than housing him in a Florida prison.

Florida and other states need to focus on the critical period before an inmate is released, to give offenders time to acclimate back to society, and to allow states to tailor these programs to meet an offender's risk level and needs. Warehousing only creates a permanent criminal class, and it drains resources that could be put to more productive use. The good news about Florida's poor ranking is that the state has the luxury of looking anywhere else for a better model.