Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Cut hard time: Rehabilitation does more than cut costs.

James McDonough is one of the longest serving top state officials in Florida, having been the so-called Drug Czar for most of the Jeb Bush administration and now serving as secretary of the Department of Corrections under Gov. Crist.

He is also a man who has the wisdom and the gumption to try to lead the leaders, coming up with proposals such as this week's suggestion that his agency can save 10 percent by moving thousands of state inmates from prisons to work release, substance abuse and education programs.

The savings he projects would be twice what Mr. Crist has asked of the agency, but it isn't an easy proposal to swallow politically, however wise and far-sighted if managed with scrupulous regard for public safety.

Mr. McDonough wants to use the approach, releasing non-sex offenders - with no escape history or domestic violence injunctions - three months early, to better prepare inmates to make a successful transition back into society. Right now about a third of inmates released from DOC, return, so the current system isn't exactly working when it comes to recidivism.

In a report Saturday in the Sarasota Herald Tribune, Mr. McDonough said he realized this would be a shift from more than a decade of hard-line policies - including those emanating from the governor's own "chain-gang Charlie" years. In the 1990s, then-state senator Crist lead lawmakers in mandating that all inmates serve 85 percent of their sentence, and promoted work on roadside labor crews.

But the governor said last week that he respects Mr. McDonough's "excellent judgment" and would like to see what offenders would be under consideration, and whether they would indeed pose little threat to the public.

This is an open-minded view not reflected in the Senate where criminal justice committee chairman Victor Crist (no relation to the governor) reacted more negatively.

It is indeed a concept to be considered very carefully, but clearly the need to make dire cuts in the budget is an incentive and opportunity to review any programs that may represent excessive loyalty to a political selling point, but cannot necessarily be supported.

For example, some 3,000 inmates who, nearing the end of their sentences, have already been out working in the public for sometime yet are staying in DOC institutions at night. Mr. McDonough, a former West Point-educated Army officer, said there is little risk in releasing these inmates to work-release centers, which still provide oversight, drug testing, garnished wages and so forth.

Another 3,600 inmates are coming from local communities that have sentenced them to a year and a day - just long enough to place them in a state prison instead of in an overcrowded local jail. Mr. McDonough contends many of these would be more effectively managed in halfway houses or substance abuse treatment centers instead of expensive state prisons, an approach that would promote a better transition for these short-sentence inmates back into society.

Given the state budget crunch, and the fact that the budget population has doubled since 1990 in large part due to laws that put long-term incarceration above vocational, education and mental health treatment - a review of programs that aren't truly effective but are excessively expensive is a prudent, probably necessary, and even professionally smart step to take.

An Editorial from the Tallahassee Democrat

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