Everyone in Florida government is singing the Budget Blues. But underlying the melody is a drumbeat many state leaders profess not to hear: The sound of countless prison doors slamming shut. Like it or not, the state's incarceration policies have a direct and growing impact on the current budget crisis.
AN EXPENSIVE HABIT
Florida's prison system is growing faster than that of any other state. According to a report by the Pew Charitable Trust, corrections (which includes state prisons and probation) consumed 9.3 percent of the state budget in 2007. The only states to allocate a greater portion of their budget were Oregon and Michigan.
And that only accounts for direct prison and probation spending -- it doesn't encompass increased public support for the families prisoners leave behind, or the burden on city and county governments that have to build additional jail space and employ more public-safety workers. Meanwhile, the state -- whose daily average prison population is projected to top 100,000 this year -- will need to build new facilities this year or face overcrowding. Department of Corrections Secretary Walter McNeil has requested $439.2 million in the coming budget year to add capacity.
Few people are pushing for dangerous murderers and rapists to be released. But neither can they dispute that Florida's incarceration spree occurred at a time when crime rates were actually trending downward. Florida hasn't become a more dangerous place to live, it's just become one that has become politically addicted to the idea of increasingly harsh punishments.
One of the more important checks against legislative excess has been hobbled. Lawmakers have significantly eroded the ability of judges to determine fair, justifiable sentences for a wide range of crimes.
Florida, like many states, adopted sentencing guidelines as a way to keep sentences relatively fair across geographic and racial lines. After sentencing guidelines passed in 1983, courts used a "score sheet" that added points for the particulars of an offense, the criminal background of an offender and other relevant considerations. The resulting score was then matched to a "guideline" range of prison and/or probation time -- but judges could depart from the guidelines if they found good reason to do so. That approach used fairness as a base line, giving judges the ability to tailor sentences to circumstances.
That changed in the mid-1990s, when the Legislature passed a series of laws aimed at stripping discretion from judges. There were "minimum mandatory" laws that demanded specific sentences for specific crimes, regardless of circumstances. Habitual offender statutes added more prison time, again taking away judges' discretion and resulting in cases like that of a burglar who received a life sentence for stealing a handful of children's videotapes.
In 1997, the Legislature erased the "ceiling" for guideline sentences; judges were not allowed to sentence a defendant to a sentence lower than the guidelines called for, but were permitted (even encouraged) to levy the statutory maximum sentence even if the guidelines called for a much lower penalty. As a result, the state could see a dramatic growth in sentencing disparity, with more politically minded judges levying unnecessarily harsh sentences in an attempt to appear tougher.
A final change -- setting zero-tolerance policies for many prisoners on probation -- has pushed thousands more people back behind bars, often for relatively minor offenses.
FINDING A SOLUTION
Restoring the intent of Florida's sentencing guidelines, and returning discretion to judges, would be a good start. The state also can ease the burden on prisons by matching offenders with programs that reduce the chances that they will commit more crimes. Specialized courts -- such as drug or mental health courts -- generally operate outside sentencing guideline requirements. And these programs work, significantly reducing the number of offenders who are rearrested.
Last month, the state Senate Criminal Justice Committee heard about other measures that could reduce prison population -- such as a controlled release program or prison diversion measures. These are worth exploring, but they would be no replacement for a careful, analytical approach to each case that a judge could offer.
Undoing these dubious reforms would restore equity to sentencing in Florida, and help restore the emphasis of the state's correctional mission -- to reform prisoners and turn them away from a life of crime -- and reducing the burden on Florida's taxpayers, who are feeding ever-increasing sums of money into a prison system that doesn't make them any safer.
By The Numbers
· 9.3 percent -- portion of Florida budget (2007) spent for corrections (prison and probation)
· 100,000 -- state's projected daily average prison population for 2009
· $439.2 million -- requested in coming budget year to add capacity
An editorial from the Daytona News Journal published February 8, 2009