Florida's budget crisis may bring a modicum of reasonableness to the debate over criminal justice policy. Instead of the "tough on crime" mantra that politicians spout to win elections and that usually leads to more prison beds, suggestions are cropping up for alternatives as a way to save big bucks. These ideas are not percolating up from liberal sources alone. Some of the most ardent supporters for a more measured approach to crime and criminals include a conservative Republican lawmaker and a fiscal watchdog group.
Florida houses 100,000 inmates in prison and expects to house another 15,000 by 2014. Three new prisons are on the drawing board. This fiscal year $340 million was allocated for prison construction, and much more will be required in the years to come.
State Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, is deeply concerned about the way the prisons are eating up Florida's revenues when the state has pressing priorities in education, public health and elsewhere. As chairman of the Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Committee, Crist's ideas would eliminate the need for thousands of prison beds. And these ideas have the added benefit of being sensible criminal justice reforms.
In "Ideas for Fiscally Responsible Justice," Crist has laid out options intended to conserve spending on corrections and reduce recidivism while not jeopardizing public safety. They include:
• Establishing an experimental diversion program at buildings vacated by the Department of Juvenile Justice to give nonviolent felons access to substance abuse programs and life-skills training.
• Giving judges discretion to sanction probation violators to more appropriate settings than a maximum security prison bed when their infractions are minor, including the option of expanded electronic monitoring.
• Creating a "community-based incarceration" program for select inmates who are serving the last year of their sentence and have successfully participated in a work-release program.
This program, Crist says, would cut in half housing costs per inmate. Offenders would live in a supervised facility in their home cities. During the day they would be electronically monitored and employed in a job they could potentially retain after release. Crist points out that the program would give soon-to-be released prisoners a way to reintegrate themselves into society, putting them near family with a way to support themselves.
These are good ideas that deserve serious attention. Crist's ideas on expanded work release are similar to those offered by Florida TaxWatch, a fiscal watchdog group that recommends doubling the capacity of work-release programs to include an additional 3,000 inmates.
The organization also has endorsed the reintroduction of "gain time" for good behavior for nonviolent offenders. That would reduce overcrowding and offer another tool to maintain order in prisons. Just these two steps alone, Florida TaxWatch says, would eliminate the need for new prisons.
Florida's budget crisis offers the state an opportunity to move beyond the "lock 'em up and throw away the key" rhetoric that has substituted for criminal justice policy for far too long. A more nuanced, pragmatic approach to nonviolent offenders of the sort that Crist and Florida TaxWatch are proposing would save money that would otherwise be spent on prisons and would provide inmates a better opportunity to stay out of trouble when they are released. Every dollar saved by building fewer prisons is a dollar that can be used to spare public education and social services from deeper spending cuts.
A St. Petersburg Times Editorial published February 12, 2009