Monday, April 21, 2008

What Happened To Our State of Florida?

Why are we in the worst budget crisis of our lifetime? Why is the criminal justice system on the brink of eliminating vital substance abuse and other rehabilitative programs?

With just two weeks of the legislative session left, it seems almost certain that public schools and public health programs will get whacked by billions of dollars.

In other words, everything is going according to plan.

Not the plan of most Floridians, who will be shocked when the new budget year starts this summer and they find that services that they, their elderly relatives or their neighbors rely upon will be reduced or gone.

No, this is the plan of the anti-government wing of the Republican Party, which has held considerable sway in Tallahassee over the past decade.

These folks fundamentally do not believe that government should be in the business of running schools or paying for medical care for the poor or elderly. Never mind that public education has been a bedrock value of this country for a century and a half, or that society as a whole appeared to agree in the 1960s that the richest country on the planet ought to care for its old and sick.

Such charity, in their view, should be entirely voluntary, and not subsidized by public dollars. True, in times when the economy is rolling along and tax revenues are bountiful, these arguments seem petty and mean-spirited. This is why you didn't really hear them in the Capitol during the late 1990s and through the first half of this decade.

Instead, the proponents of this ideology cleverly took after the other half of the equation through tax cuts — the "starve the beast" approach.

Not starve it immediately, because that draws heaps of bad publicity.

Rather, they tinkered with Florida's already unsteady tax structure and further unbalanced it, so that when the recession came, the hit would be that much more extreme — and require cuts that were that much more severe.

The best example is former Gov. Jeb Bush's dogged elimination of the intangibles tax, which, with few exceptions, hit the wealthiest 4.5 percent of Floridians and was also the only progressive tax the state had. By getting rid of it, the state became that much more reliant on the sales tax, the fluctuations of which are readily evident in every economic downturn.

Consider where the state would be if it had the $1 billion that tax on stocks and bonds would have produced today. It would not have covered the whole shortfall, true, but because much of that bottom-line total is federal matching money that will not be received because the state is cutting back on its share, it would have covered considerably more than $1 billion.

Or imagine if the rich-people's break had been given year-to-year, depending on the state of the budget — like, for instance, the way the little people's "sales tax holidays" are granted or not granted. Then, Florida's richest would have to forgo their several-thousand-dollar tax breaks in tough years — just as ordinary Floridians have had to do without their six-cents-on-the-dollar break on back-to-school clothes some summers.

Of course, that idea was never on the table. The intangibles tax was deemed "insidious" and had to be eliminated, entirely and forever, while the sales tax holidays — which typically cost about $40 million — were considered gifts to the people, but only when the state could afford them.

Between the intangibles tax repeal and the various other permanent tax cuts — most of them targeted for specific groups and totaling less than $50 million a year — Bush and Republican lawmakers cut recurring revenues by some $1.8 billion a year. The predictable consequence is where Florida is today — on the verge of hacking away at what was already a flimsy safety net.

This outcome, while predictable, is not inevitable. Gov. Charlie Crist wants to spend some of the $7.8 billion in reserves Bush said he was leaving behind (the figure was illusory, and included such things as Florida's obligations in the Everglades restoration), while House Democrats want to close a $400 million loophole that allows giant, multistate corporations an enormous tax advantage against Florida-only businesses.

Neither of these ideas, though, is likely to happen, because both are based on the premise that such massive cuts to education and social services are bad things to be avoided. Unfortunately for parents of public school children, for the poor and for the abused, the architects of the tax policy that got us here do not accept that premise. In their view, they are on the brink of a long-sought victory. They are not likely to give it up easily.

by S.V. Date, published at on April 21, 2008

Friday, April 11, 2008

Save money, cut crime; treat the mentally ill

It's stupid to recycle mentally ill people through Florida's criminal justice system when, for millions less, they could receive effective treatment that cuts the crime rate.

Florida spends about $250 million per year on 1,700 "forensic treatment beds" to basically warehouse people who are mentally incompetent to stand trial. The cost will keep going up. Department of Children and Families Secretary Bob Butterworth, whose department is required to deal with this problem, says, "Of all the money I've ever asked for in my political life, this is the most useless I've ever had to ask for." Mr. Butterworth has spent 35 years in public life.

It's "useless" because the patients generally are held until minimal treatment makes them technically "competent," at which point they usually reach a deal. After that, they are sentenced to time served, go back out on the streets with no more treatment and almost immediately get back in trouble with the law. Now Mr. Butterworth, a former sheriff, legislator, judge and state attorney general, has endorsed a program that he thinks will require him to ask for much less "useless" money. This week, the Florida House agreed with him.

The plan largely is the work of Miami-Dade County Judge Steven Leifman, who serves as a special adviser on criminal justice and mental health to the Florida Supreme Court. The House has agreed to spend $8 million for experimental programs in Escambia, Broward and Miami-Dade counties that will provide continuing treatment and supervision for people who previously would have been "kicked out the door." The initial goal, which may take years, is to convert 300 of the "forensic treatment beds" to the new treatment system, with savings projected at $48 million.

Before society became more enlightened about mental illness, Judge Leifman notes, many mentally ill people ended up in jail. Mental hospitals replaced jails but failed from lack of expertise and money. "Two hundred years have passed," Judge Leifman says, "and the jails once again are the primary place" for holding the mentally ill. Mr. Butterworth's predecessor, under orders from then-Gov. Bush, refused a court order to release mentally ill inmates from the Pinellas County jail.

The number of people declared unfit to stand trial has doubled in five years. Treating them the old way, as Mr. Butterworth and Judge Leifman say, is "literally insane." Now, the Senate needs to join the Florida House in a long-overdue demonstration of sanity.

A Palm Beach Post Editorial published Friday, April 11, 2008

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Number of mentally-ill felons has doubled in Florida according to DCF

The number of accused felons ruled mentally incompetent for trial has doubled over five years, crowding Florida institutions with the most expensive type of offenders at a time of severe budget restraints, according to a new legislative study.

"I think it's absolutely nuts that we spend approximately $250 million a year to maintain approximately 1,707 forensic beds so we can stabilize people to the point that we can teach them what a courtroom is," Department of Children and Families Secretary Bob Butterworth said Monday. "To keep doing that is the definition of insanity."

The House Health Care Council is scheduled today to consider a pilot program in Escambia, Miami-Dade and Broward Counties to get more mentally ill offenders into treatment, rather than prisons. Butterworth, a former attorney general and circuit judge, said his goal is to reduce forensic beds by 300 in six years.

OPPAGA estimated that 2,123 people were found incompetent for trial last fiscal year, compared to 1,061 in 2002-03. The report said 23 percent of inmates in county jails and 16 percent in state prisons "have serious mental illnesses."

"This report underscores the seriousness of the issue, the need to address it thoughtfully and the extreme costs we are facing in the long term if solutions are not found," said Chief Justice R. Fred Lewis, who last year created a multi-agency task force to get the mentally ill out of jails and into treatment.

Miami-Dade County Judge Steven Leifman, who headed that effort, said he will get copies of the report to the House council considering legislation to implement the task force recommendations today. Leifman said there is $8 million in the House budget but no money in the Senate for diverting mentally disturbed offenders to treatment.

"This just highlights everything we've been saying," said Leifman. "It's very, very difficult to get any money but this may be the only new funding to come out of the Legislature, or one of the only new funding issues. But the cost of not addressing this is much too high."

The new analysis said 5.8 out of every 1,000 felony charges resulted in an incompetency finding five years ago but 9.2 per 1,000 did last fiscal year.

"This increase suggests that individuals with mental illness are coming into contact more frequently with the criminal justice system," said the report. "This reflects the de-institutionalization of persons with mental illness. Florida, like most states, has closed psychiatric hospitals in order to treat persons with mental illness in the community, based on the theory that persons with severe mental illness could function in community settings with appropriate social and psychiatric support systems."

Offenders considered a danger to themselves or others can be committed at five institutions — operated by either the Agency for Persons with Disabilities, for those with developmental disorders, orby the Department of Children and Families, for the mentally ill. Last fiscal year, OPPAGA said, courts sent 1,396 defendants to DCF facilities and 118 to APD for "competency restoration" treatment.

Incompetent offenders who are not considered dangerous can be "conditionally released" to community-based care as outpatients. OPPAGA estimated 1,431 mentally ill defendants were sent to community-based "competency restoration" programs, rather than being confined to institutions by DCF, but APD "is unable to provide complete data" on the number of developmentally disabled offenders getting outpatient care.

Those who are found to be dangerous but incompetent for trial are kept indefinitely.

"We're getting very close to capacity," said Butterworth. "We're working with sheriffs and public defenders and the courts to move them in and out as fast as we can, to get them competent for trial if possible."

By Bill Cotterell

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

© 2008 News-Journal Corporation. ®