Sunday, April 06, 2008

Rigid penalties, high costs, but are we safer?

Florida lawmakers stumbled into a sticky trap when they legislated tougher prison sentences in the late 1980s. Their initial attempts to keep the "worst of the worst" behind bars for longer periods of time were modest and sensible. But every headline-grabbing crime story spurred them to cast a wider and more punitive net, with little regard to the cost, human or otherwise.

As a result, some dangerous people will almost surely never see the light of day. But thousands of inmates will spend far longer in prison than their crimes merit -- and their families and communities will suffer for it. Many people incarcerated in state prisons never commit another crime after being released, but the longer prisoners are behind bars the less chance they have of reclaiming productive lives.

Meanwhile, the public must bear the increasing cost of maintaining these expensive failure factories, with little assurance of greater public safety. Private prisons -- once touted as the answer to expensive corrections budgets -- haven't worked, sacrificing accountability while saving little.

By the end of the year, Florida's prison population could top 100,000. The cost of keeping those prisoners behind bars runs close to $20,000 per inmate, per year, and the total correctional budget is more than $2.5 billion. Despite a prison-building spree in the 1990s, Florida's state correctional institutions are near capacity, and the state will need an estimated two new prisons a year to keep up.

When state coffers are full, prison budgets get little scrutiny. But lawmakers are staring down a $2 billion hole in next year's budget. And some of them are coming to the realization that Florida's lock 'em up philosophy has gone too far, that it's time to rethink some of the overbearing sentencing laws that cost the state so much. The alternative -- slashing drug treatment and education for inmates and reducing programs that help people turn away from crime -- is all but guaranteed to boomerang on the state, producing an even greater number of people locked hopelessly behind bars and an even tougher strain on taxpayers.

Give state Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, credit for seeing the light. He's recommending early release for selected non-violent offenders, including people behind bars for driving with suspended licenses, specific drug offenses or nonpayment of child support. More important, he's recommending a comprehensive look at Florida's get-tough sentencing laws -- through a new commission -- that would examine the cost and benefit of each sentencing provision. The commission would consider tweaks to state sentencing guidelines, returning discretion to judges and prosecutors currently bound by state law to mete harsh sentences even when they're not warranted.

That's the crucial thing to understand about Florida's sentencing laws -- judges and prosecutors always have had the option to levy harsher sentences against truly dangerous people. Minimum-mandatory sentencing laws and strict guidelines strip skilled jurists of the ability to make that determination.

"Lock 'em all up and let God sort them out" may sound good on a campaign flier. In practice, it's been disastrous for Florida and an enormous strain on state resources. If the current budget crisis forces lawmakers to finally accept that reality, Florida could end up the better for it.

Florida's Prison System By the Numbers

70,616 inmates in Florida prisons in March 2000

96,186 inmates in Florida prisons in February 2008

1.4 Years average length of prison term served by offenders sentenced in 1988 (includes all offenses)

4 Years average length of prison term served by offenders sentenced in 2004 (includes all offenses)

34.9% average percentage of court-ordered sentence served by an inmate sentenced in 1988

87% average percentage of a court-ordered sentence served by an inmate sentenced in 2004

In 1988, 1.9 percent of the prison population was serving a sentence of more than 10 years, and less than 1 percent was serving a sentence of more than 20 years (including prisoners on death row).

In 2004, 7.4 percent of the prison population was serving a sentence longer than 10 years, and 3.2 percent was serving sentences of longer than 20 years.

SOURCE: Florida Dept. of Corrections

Originally appeared on News-Journal Online at
April 06, 2008

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