Friday, March 28, 2008

Stay tough on crime -- by preventing it

In a year of the steepest budget cuts in Florida history, some state-funded operations will actually get more tax dollars. These would be private-prison operators and prison-construction companies. The Legislature is poised to spend millions of dollars to build two prisons a year for the next five years. The state prison system is near capacity with nearly 100,000 inmates.
Building more prisons and passing laws that are harder on repeat offenders are often cited by lawmakers to prove their tough-on-crime bona fides. But there is a more cost-effective way to prove you're tough on crime -- prevent it from happening in the first place. Deterrence programs, when applied correctly, work. Yet, incredibly, the state's most effective crime-prevention tool is facing the budget ax. The Florida Department of Juvenile Justice proposes cutting all funding for the state's Juvenile Assessment Centers, created by the Legislature in the wake of a lethal crime spike in the 1990s. The JACs are run by counties.

Can the JACs reduce demand for prison beds? Yes. Take the one run by Miami-Dade County's Juvenile Services Department. In 1995 there were 20,000 juvenile arrests in Miami-Dade. The county's JAC opened in 1997. By 2006, juvenile arrests in Miami-Dade had dropped to 10,860. The county's Juvenile Detention Center used to average 350 teen occupants a day, now the average is 100 a day. Juvenile offenders' recidivism rate has been reduced by 78 percent since the JAC opened here. Other JACs have been equally effective in turning young men and women away from the criminal path and imprisonment.

Paying for prison construction and for housing and feeding inmates costs a mint compared to what the Department of Juvenile Justice spends on deterrence, which begins when a police officer brings a youth arrested for the first time to a JAC. There, the teen is evaluated, which is crucial. It can bring down the heavy fist of the juvenile-justice system when that is warranted or, instead, begin to resolve issues that cause the youth's wayward behavior.

Gov. Crist's Juvenile Justice Blueprint Committee, headed by Florida Atlantic University President Frank Brogan, released its assessment of the state's juvenile-justice system in February. Among the findings is that the state must change its ''lock-em-up'' approach to one that uses treatment and residential programs to steer youths away from trouble. As difficult as the budgeting is in this cash-strapped year, the Legislature should show that it can be tough on crime by being efficient and smart. This means funding JACs and youth crime-prevention initiatives adequately. The choice should be easy. Fund the JACs or continue to spend far more dollars building state prisons.

A Miami Herald Editorial published March 29, 2008

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.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Cutting Drug-Treatment Programs Will Prove Costly To Taxpayers

Florida's budget crisis may destroy drug treatment in Florida. But if lawmakers respond thoughtfully, the crisis could end up making the state's drug-treatment efforts and criminal justice system more effective.

Across-the board cuts to treatment's already inadequate funding would render it all-but-irrelevant.

But if lawmakers look closely at the numbers they will see that bolstering the state's investment in drug treatment would actually cut costs.

The reason? It is more effective and less expensive than building new prisons.

On Wednesday, the Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Walter McNeil went before the Senate's criminal justice appropriations committee to respond to a directive from its chairman, Sen. Victor Crist, to show how it could cut 10 percent of its $3.2 billion budget. On the list: the complete elimination of $36.8 million for drug treatment programs both inside prisons and in partnerships with community-based, non-profit treatment groups that work with probationers and those in drug court.

The cuts, if realized, would be devastating both in terms of public safety and human costs. The short-term savings quickly would be consumed by the costs of housing additional prisoners and rising crime rates and the resulting social costs.

Florida is quickly running out of room in its prison system. It now houses 99,000 inmates but must grow to 105,000 beds by the middle of 2009. This year alone Florida is looking at spending about $650 million on new prison construction.

Bear in mind that 20 percent of those incarcerated in state prisons are there for drug offenses, but as many as two-thirds of the inmate population committed crimes either to feed a drug habit or while under the influence of their addiction.

Drug treatment substantially reduces crime. Nearly one-third of inmates who don't get drug treatment are sent back to prison, compared to just 11 percent of those who do get help.

The Florida Alcohol and Drug Abuse Association estimates that providing substance abuse treatment to inmates and probationers will end up saving the state $278 million this year alone; and $771 million over the next five years.

Gov. Charlie Crist included a wise investment in drug treatment in his budget, nearly doubling the state's commitment to treatment with an additional $28 million. This tough-on-crime governor understands that preventing crimes is the best way to protect the public.

And we were heartened to see Sen. Crist make it clear in a recent interview with the Miami Herald that he stands in support of drug treatment initiatives.

The Florida Legislature has an opportunity this session to cut costs and improve public safety - if it will invest in drug-treatment programs.

An Editorial from The Tampa Tribune
Published: March 20, 2008
Find this article at:

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Florida Department of Corrections asks Legislature to Abolish all Substance Abuse Programs

The Legislature has requested that the Department of Corrections propose an additional cut of $213 million (10% reduction) from its budget without eliminating any prison beds. The Department of Corrections is poised to recommend tomorrow the elimination of all $37 million in existing correctional substance abuse programs to meet this goal. In addition, Secretary McNeil will also be recommending the elimination of community-based faith initiatives, pre-trial intervention programs, and drug court funding. A 10% cut in agency administration and the loss of over 300 security staff and 350 probation staff are also on the potential cut list. Because institutions cannot be closed, the remaining option is for the Department of Corrections to decimate probation and eliminate services.

Elimination of these services will only be prevented if each and every correctional substance abuse provider takes action today. The following action steps are recommended:
• Come to Tallahassee tomorrow and Thursday to attend the appropriations hearings and meet with legislators. Plan to return next week for the appropriations meetings. The budget will be complete by next Friday, March 28. There is very little time for your voice to be heard. (Schedule of Appropriations Meetings at end of Alert).
• Prepare a one page description of the impact of such cuts on your community, local public safety efforts, and your program. Report the number of staff that will be terminated and the fiscal impact on the community. Use local data and the data we have supplied to calculate the additional cost of new prison beds as a result of the elimination of your services
• Call the media today. Alert them to this possibility. Ask them to cover the story in Tallahassee tomorrow and to write a local impact statement as soon as possible. If you do not know the reporters, ask for the reporter that covers crime stories. Have prepared for them a success story, how your program benefited an offender and how this person is now a tax paying citizen.
• Call judges, sheriffs, state attorneys, and other influential community members. Ask them to make a call today to key legislators to argue for no cuts to substance abuse programs

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

Friday, March 07, 2008

Keep mentally ill in proper treatment, not cells

Annually, as many as 125,000 people with mental illnesses requiring
immediate treatment are arrested and booked into Florida jails. On
any given day, more than 70,000 individuals with serious mental
illnesses reside in Florida's jails and prisons or are under
correctional supervision in the community. Frequently, these
individuals enter the justice system as the result of committing
relatively minor offenses that are directly related to symptoms of
acute, untreated mental illnesses.

Unfortunately, many of them are either denied community-based care,
or the care that they do receive is fragmented and insufficient.
Disabled and vulnerable, they recycle through the system, creating a
revolving door of criminal and legal involvement.

Measures have been taken in the past to reform this unsystematic
approach to Florida's mental health system, but to no avail:

• The movement from institutional to community-based treatment was
never fully executed or funded, resulting in decades of fragmented
mental healthcare.

• The existing community mental health system leaves enormous gaps in
treatment and access and is not designed to serve the needs of
individuals who experience the most chronic and severe forms of
mental illnesses.

Some of us have served on trial courts across the state and have
witnessed firsthand the problems that are created when courts are
forced to deal with mental health issues. Without proper treatment,
these individuals appear and reappear in court. But all of us know
that the problems with the current system weigh heavily on law
enforcement and the criminal justice system. Courts see increasingly
high numbers of cases and jails are continually overcrowded.

Based on recent trends, Florida can expect the number of prison
inmates with mental illnesses to nearly double in the next nine years
to over 32,000 individuals, with an average annual increase of
roughly 1,700 individuals per year. To keep up with such demand, the
state would need to open at least one new prison every year.

The state of Florida currently spends roughly $250 million annually
to treat about 1,700 individuals under forensic commitment. Without a
change to the existing system, the state faces potential forensic
expenditures of $500 million annually by 2015.

But there is hope. A comprehensive plan was recently unveiled under
the joint leadership of the three government branches and with
sponsorship from Chief Justice R. Fred Lewis and Gov. Charlie Crist.
Under this redesigned system of care, there will be:

• Programs incorporating best-practices to support adaptive
functioning in the community and prevent individuals with mental
illnesses from inappropriately entering the justice and forensic
mental health systems.

• Mechanisms to quickly identify and appropriately respond to
individuals with mental illnesses who become involved in the justice

• Programs to stabilize these individuals and link them to recovery-
oriented services that respond to their unique needs.

• Financing strategies that redirect cost savings from the forensic
mental health system and establish new Medicaid funding programs.

We strongly urge the Florida Legislature to adopt and implement the
recommendations made for the transformation of the public mental
health system. In doing so, lawmakers will achieve the dual purposes
of addressing needed change and improvements in efficiency of the
mental health system, as well as reducing a costly and unnecessary
burden on all facets of the justice system.

This article was written by six former Florida Supreme Court
justices: Chief Justice Stephen H. Grimes, Chief Justice Major B.
Harding, Justice Joseph W. Hatchett, Chief Justice Leander J. Shaw,
Jr., Chief Justice Ben F. Overton and Chief Justice Parker Lee
McDonald. All are retired. Posted 3/7/08

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Children in Chains

As they consider ways to make juvenile offenders safer in state custody, lawmakers should seize the opportunity to clarify state policy on one controversial practice -- slapping leg irons and belly chains on youthful offenders, regardless of their age, physical strength or offense.

Lawmakers never officially approved the practice of shackling juveniles travelling to and from court. Yet it's common procedure in courthouses across the state -- even in circuits where adults accused of violent offenses are transported without the chains. Experts in juvenile justice lament the message the heavy shackles send to young offenders, many of whom are already terrified.

In September, the Florida Bar's Committee on the Legal Status of Children recommended that lawmakers make it clear that shackles are only to be used when a juvenile represents a clear physical threat, either to himself, guards or fellow offenders. A commission appointed by Gov. Charlie Crist reached the same conclusion last month, after hearing from psychologists who said the shackles serve to disorient and traumatize youth, making them distrustful and sending the message that they are little more than animals. Several circuits, including Miami-Dade, have dropped the practice; Public Defender Jim Purdy, whose circuit includes Volusia and Flagler, has asked local judges to make the same call.

The extensive testimony makes it clear: A one-size-fits-all policy on chaining children is unnecessarily cruel and could be counter-productive. The Legislature should put a stop to it.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Locked into a prison mentality

The Land of Liberty now imprisons one of every 99 adults, a criminal milestone that deserves more than a punch line about law and order.

Forget, for a moment, the causes or the results of putting 2.3-million adults behind bars in the United States. Just consider the sobering context: The United States leads the planet in incarceration, in raw numbers and per capita rate. No other country is even close.

China, with more than four times the population, imprisons a third fewer. Russia, at one of every 159 adults, has the second highest rate behind the United States. Cuba locks up one in 204, South Africa one in 293, Iran one in 450. The U.S. incarceration rate is now seven times higher than Canada, 10 times more than Italy and 12 times greater than Japan.

These numbers are supplied by the Pew Center on the States, and one striking feature of its report is the extent to which conservative state lawmakers are now looking for alternatives. No one is trying to push dangerous inmates back on the streets, but some states are looking anew at how they deal with drug offenders and probation violators and older inmates under mandatory sentences.

Dave Heineman, Republican governor of Nebraska, introduced a work program for nonviolent offenders last year, saying: "The concept we've embraced through community corrections is that there are better solutions to this challenge than to simply build another maximum-security prison."

Florida might want to listen. While other big states find ways to reduce prison population and crime at the same time, Florida continues to stuff its prisons. Just last year, Gov. Charlie Crist pushed through a law that can lock up even those who have minor probation violations.

According to Pew, Florida is second in the nation in the share of general government revenue it spends on corrections. That financial measurement is salient, since that same pot of money is used to pay for public schools and universities. Across the United States, prison spending over the past two decades has grown at five times the rate of education spending.

The questions posed by these prison numbers are profound, which is why the usual political bromides are inadequate.

A St. Petersburg Times Editorial
Published March 1, 2008