Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Prison policies in need of an overhaul

Gov. Charlie Crist should know better. He has been involved in Florida politics long enough to know that the Legislature's 20-year binge of anti-crime laws and new prison construction is wasteful and counterproductive. Yet the governor last week vowed to stay the course with crime-and-punishment policies that are costly and inefficient.
Smart planning

Some lawmakers suggested that Florida could save significant amounts of money in these lean budget times by adjusting its incarceration policies. They are right as rain. Florida incarcerates more people than all but two states, California and Texas. Thus, Florida's jail population ranks third in a country that jails more people than any other in the world, including China, which has four times as many people as the United States and is run by a communist dictatorship.

Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, and others who want to reduce costs by winnowing Florida's jail populations have more than a good idea: They have a formula for smart planning and savvy politics. Sen. Crist (no relation to the governor) and other lawmakers want to reduce the state's prison population by releasing nonviolent inmates early, putting others in supervised work release and creating a commission to review minimum-mandatory sentencing, including jail time for nonviolent drug offenders.

In truth, a commission isn't needed to ''discover'' what every Floridian already knows. But if a commission can give lawmakers political cover by building a data base that supports common-sense policies, then fine, impanel a commission. Florida began building jails at a breakneck pace in the 1980s after judges ordered thousands of inmates freed due to prison overcrowding. The Legislature responded by enacting laws that have resulted in thousands of nonviolent offenders being jailed.

Waste of resources

Today, Florida's jails are less crowded, but the costs have soared. Florida spends more than $2.5 billion annually to house nearly 100,000 inmates, a majority of whom are incarcerated for nonviolent offenses. In addition to the direct costs to the state of jailing so many people, Florida's high-incarceration rate breaks up families, damages communities and returns individuals to the streets with criminal records and poorly equipped to make positive contributions to society.

Gov. Crist knows better than to continue with policies that perpetuate this waste of resources and human capital. He knows because he has seen it all happen during his tenure in public office. Gov. Crist must act, but he alone can't reverse Florida's reliance on counterproductive prison policies. His leadership, however, can embolden others to find better alternatives for the failed policies.

A Miami Herald Editorial
Posted on Tue, Mar. 18, 2008

No comments: