Thursday, March 27, 2008

Lawmakers are misguided on correctional-system cuts

The Florida Legislature would rather look tough on crime than actually be tough.

That's the irrefutable message that shows up in both House and Senate budget proposals, which dramatically undermine the Department of Corrections and along with it public defenders, sheriffs and local corrections systems.

By contrast, the budget of Gov. Charlie Crist, a former attorney general and lawmaker known at onetime as "Chain Gang Charlie," is supportive of the DOC's current allocation of its budget to a mix of substance abuse rehabilitation and education programs and old-fashioned incarceration. He finds revenues in rainy-day funds that can be tapped for essential and wise approaches to public safety.

For example, substance abuse treatment — such as that conducted here in Leon County at the 70-bed residential treatment program on Springhill Road for adults and at Disc Village for juveniles, in our Teen Court and myriad programs statewide — is well documented as a means of reducing recidivism. In turn public safety is enhanced when crimes related to substance abuse are diminished.

Yet the House on Wednesday cut the DOC's entire $31 million for substance abuse programs inside prisons and in community partnerships. It also, absurdly, eliminates state money to operate federally mandated programs.

This is an interesting rebellion against a federal mandate, given that the House's budget would cut 607 community corrections officers and 132 employees in local community corrections administrations. These costs would — what else? — be handed down as another unfunded mandate to local governments.

When the DOC was asked to cut $214.7 million — or 10 percent — from its total budget, it was locked into 93 percent of the budget necessary for housing and feeding inmates. What was left is the treatment and education and staffing of local corrections programs — things apparently deemed nonessential by House members.

The Senate budget isn't much more reassuring. Senators are agreeing with Mr. Crist in holding harmless the substance abuse education and treatment efforts that have been strongly endorsed by not only DOC Secretary Walt McNeil but also Children and Families Secretary Bob Butterworth and former drug czar and DOC head Jim McDonough.

Yet the Senate is recommending cutting 1,390 prison guards, 682 community corrections officers and 128 administrators statewide, positions local governments will have to take up in part or do without. This loss of jobs is bad for the work force of prison communities, but also puts at risk the corrections officers remaining on the job, but not in inadequate numbers.

Leon County Public Defender Nancy Daniels is especially dismayed by the possible loss of the Teen Court, which has been a shining star in getting kids out of harm's way when it comes to illegal substances. "For every $1 in treatment of substance abuse we save $10," Ms. Daniels said, speaking of crime and its associated costs and losses.

Given that 20 percent of inmates in state prisons are there for drug-related crimes and up to two-thirds committed crimes to support their drug habit or while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, it is folly to not invest in substance abuse treatment for inmates and people on probation and, especially, young people.

Lawmakers, your addiction to reckless cost-cutting of even the most sensible cost-saving programs is taking our state down a path of no return.

No comments: