The Florida Legislature passed a ''just in case'' bill that its author, Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, calls a ''passive safety net,'' not a mandate. But the philosophy behind SB 1722, which becomes law July 1, is based on regressive thinking.
It would allow the corrections department to ship inmates to other states in case prison overcrowding forces early releases here.
This is a patchwork solution that misses the point. Florida should be fighting crime at the front end -- not shipping prisoners to be warehoused out of state.
To reduce prison beds the state has to adequately fund programs to reduce school drop-out rates and increase job-training and life-skills classes. It means counseling and access to needed services for troubled families with teens who have strayed but not fallen off the deep end yet.
It also means drug rehabilitation programs, well-resourced drug courts and mental-health counseling for teenagers. In the long run these preventive measures would save the state millions of dollars it now spends housing prisoners who could be contributing members of society.
The irony is that, until budget deficits hit this year, Florida's been on a prison-building spree even as it has cut back on programs to reduce recidivism. The 2010 state budget is the first in a long while with no money set aside for new prison construction.
Enter the private-prison lobbyists who have long urged lawmakers to imitate the 15 states that export prisoners to public and private lockups. Even though Florida's Corrections Secretary Walt McNeil isn't a proponent of sending prisoners out of state, the private-prison lobbyists prevailed in the Legislature.
Besides its regressive thinking, this bill is an example of bad public policy. As Mr. McNeil points out, one method of reducing recidivism is encouraging inmates to build ties to the community they will return to once they're released. It's detrimental to inmates' morale -- and no incentive to go straight -- to be incarcerated hundreds of miles from their families, making visitations rare.
There are other concerns. The quality in private prisons is uneven, to say the least. Some private operators have been exposed for cutting corners by understaffing and chintzing on inmates' medical care. It would be impossible for Florida to monitor treatment of its inmates in a prison in, say, Tennessee.
Currently, Florida's prison population is stable at 101,000 and even a little below previous projections. The state's total bed capacity is around 106,000, so Florida probably won't be exporting prisoners any time soon. That gives state leaders time to craft a smarter, more cost-effective strategy to prevent prison overcrowding.
It's called crime prevention.
An editorial from the Miami Herald published June 13, 2009