Sunday, June 28, 2009

Florida can challenge the injustice of mass incarceration

Last year Florida hit a disturbing milestone: For the first time, the state's daily prison population topped 100,000, a figure that didn't include people locked up in county jails (about 60,000) or serving probation (nearly 160,000). Florida spends more than 10 percent of its general fund on corrections, and the prison system -- which saw a building boom in the late 1990s -- is again near capacity.

Nobody suggests turning dangerous offenders loose. But a growing number of Florida leaders -- across the political spectrum -- say the state has gone too far in locking up non-violent offenders and probation violators. Gov. Crist and the Legislature should heed the message.

Last week, Crist received an open letter from key opinion makers, including three former attorneys general, the former head of Florida's prison system, the Florida Association of Counties and the Florida Catholic Conference. "A bold and serious conversation about justice reform must begin today," the letter says, pointing out that prison costs have already begun to "crowd out" other priorities such as education, economic development and human service needs.

The letter follows a missive from Associated Industries of Florida, the Florida Chamber Foundation and Florida TaxWatch -- the most powerful business lobbying groups in the state -- which said essentially the same thing: Florida can't afford to keep building prisons and filling them indiscriminately.

Collectively, these groups have formed a "Coalition for Smart Justice" recommending immediate reforms that include the creation of an advisory council (mandated by the Legislature in 2008, but never established) that would review Florida's corrections system thoroughly. The legislation -- which passed unanimously in both chambers -- demanded an investigation of mental-health and substance-abuse treatment, diversion for low-level offenders and the impacts of repeated incarceration.

The council could start by looking at effective strategies in other states. Texas made a dramatic change in its corrections policies that focused on alternatives to prison -- including electronic monitoring of probationers and the addition of 6,000 treatment beds both inside prisons and in diversion centers. As a result, that state's prison system -- which was over capacity in 2006 -- should see a slight population decline next year, authorities say. Arizona, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin are among other states tackling comprehensive corrections reform, with impressive results.

But Crist and lawmakers shouldn't wait on the council, especially when meeting a pressing need: Better mental-health and substance-abuse policies. More than half of all Florida prisoners struggle with addiction or mental illness. Providing treatment alternatives to incarceration could reduce the number of people who cycle through prisons and jails on minor offenses.

Florida also needs better rehabilitation programs for offenders before they leave prison, and support afterwards. Too many inmates are discharged abruptly, lacking the education and life skills to lead successful, crime-free lives.

The state's criminal-justice policy has become too costly, in ruined lives and strained budgets alike. Reform should focus attention on incarcerating truly dangerous criminals, providing meaningful rehabilitation for the 90 percent of inmates who will eventually be released and diverting people who don't belong in prison.

An editorial published June 28, 2009 in the Daytona News Journal

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