Monday, December 22, 2008

The Florida Criminal Justice System Needs Reform

That Florida's prison population has now reached 100,000 inmates is not a point of pride. It is, quite likely, a designation that should give all thoughtful people Floridians a chance to consider whether there is a way to turn things around and reduce the need to keep building more prisons.

As Department of Corrections Secretary Walt McNeil describes them, the state's 137 facilities could almost be described as having revolving doors. That's because incarceration in and of itself does not do much to change behaviors, habits or crime rates.

The emphasis has absolutely got to shift to rehabilitation programs and education that will alone or together have a chance of sending inmates back into society equipped to live self-sufficiently, without the need for larceny and worse.

"Sometime in the next 20 or 30 years, some 80,000 of those 100,000 prisoners will be coming back to our communities," the former longtime Tallahassee police chief said. "That's why we want to emphasize reentry and rehabilitation, to protect our citizens against them re-offending and preying on society."

This is, clearly, no soft-on-crime approach; it is a realistic, if not easy, way to change one riveting statistic: Of the 40,000 prisoners released each year from the state's 60 prisons, work camps, halfway houses and other lock-ups, roughly 13,000 are back in custody within three years. More than 40 percent come back into the system two and three times.

This revolving door effect, coupled with the current incarceration rates, would mean the state would need to build another 19 prisons of 1,300 inmates each over the next five years.

Taxpayers cannot afford to endlessly build prisons, nor are they really protected by this current system that almost ignores the possibility of reform, rehabilitation and life going forward.

Virtually all leaders in key state agencies, from corrections to juvenile justice to the state judiciary have expressed their support for more alternative programs for substance abusers who turn to crime, and education for those who may prey on society because they are not educated or trained to earn a legal living.

Lawmakers have $2.3 billion worth of worries on their minds, all involving how to cut the costs of government. One abundantly obvious one is to reduce the need to build prisons endlessly when there are cheaper, more effective ways to keep the public safe.

An editorial from the Tallahassee Democrat

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