Editorial: Time for reforms to cut prison costs Time for reforms to cut prison costs

Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Legislature should give judges more flexibility, increase diversion programs.
Florida state prisons house some 96,000 inmates at a cost of $2.4 billion a year.
Florida state prisons house some 96,000 inmates at a cost of $2.4 billion a year.
Published Jan. 28, 2019

Diverting more people from prison is an overdue and sensible area of reform for Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Legislature to embrace in the upcoming legislative session. A new state report illustrates the many ways Florida continues an unsustainable cycle that has caused the prison population to balloon to over 96,000 inmates. Expanding specialty courts, civil citations and other diversion programs would put the state on a more sustainable track and save millions of dollars a year.

The state Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability published a broad survey this month of Florida's corrections system, with an eye toward identifying opportunities to steer more offenders away from prison. Some simple facts about the status quo highlight how ripe the system is for reform. For example, there are more than 100 mandatory minimum sentences, ranging from 18 months to life in prison, that apply to an array of crimes. In those cases, a judge has no discretion about what sentence to impose. The scoring system that applies to all cases has gotten tougher over time, systematically increasing the severity of penalties and the length of prison sentences.

The result is an escalating incarceration rate in Florida, which is now 10th highest in the nation. That might be a necessary evil if crime were also on the rise, but it's quite the opposite. Crime rates in Florida generally rose from 1960 to 1990 and then began declining. But the incarceration rate kept climbing until 2010. That's nonsensical criminal justice policy and just plain bad fiscal policy.

There are immediate ways to help right the ship. First should be expanding the use of drug courts, mental health courts and veterans courts that emphasize treatment and rehabilitation. They already operate throughout Florida, but there should be more of them. Other types of diversion, such as community supervision, result in lower recidivism and substantial cost savings. The report noted that the daily cost of community supervision is $5.52. Housing a prisoner for one day: $55.80. Then there are the intangible benefits of steering people away from prison, such as keeping them employed and connected to family.

The appetite in Tallahassee for reform is strong. Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, wants to impose some uniformity on who can qualify for diversion programs; now prosecutors have too much say-so and not enough people get into the programs. Raising the threshold for felony theft from $300 — an amount that hasn't changed in 30 years — is on the table, and lawmakers should expand the use of civil citations that take the place of minor arrests.

Brandes doesn't think changes to the criminal code are likely this session, but he's eager to start that conversation. Florida needs to dramatically roll back the use of mandatory minimum sentences, particularly for nonviolent crimes. Drug-free zones, a good idea gone awry, should be re-thought. They can add years to sentences for no justifiable reason. Certain crimes designated as felonies should be downgraded to misdemeanors, and the state should more liberally employ conditional medical releases for sick and aging prisoners so that Florida doesn't end up operating a chain of prison nursing homes, further bloating the $2.4 billion annual Department of Corrections budget.

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Florida can save millions by reducing its prison population through smart, evidence-backed policies without jeopardizing public safety. The outcome would be a course correction from an unaffordable path that will only become more costly. Lawmakers should seize on this issue, which has bipartisan appeal, and pass tangible reforms this spring.