Something important is afoot on the topic of Florida's prisons.
A growing group of prominent Floridians is questioning whether we can just keep building more of them.
Is this group, the Coalition for Smart Justice, made up of whiny, hand-wringing, soft-on-crime liberals? No.
Here's some who have endorsed the effort:
The president of the business lobby Associated Industries of Florida; the president of Florida TaxWatch; the executive vice president of the Florida Chamber Foundation; at least one former state corrections secretary; three former Florida attorneys general; the executive director of the Florida Police Benevolent Association; the executive director of the Florida Catholic Conference.
They are among the signers of a document titled, "An Open Letter to the Governor, Legislature and People of Florida," urging the state to do more than just build. The group continues to gather more signers.
"Too many ex-offenders (are) going back to prison," the letter says, "because, while behind bars, they received little or no job training, mental health and substance abuse treatment, and the necessary life-skills tools to legitimately re-enter civil society."
About 33 percent of inmates released in Florida are back behind bars within three years. This is costing us a fortune and will cost more.
We have just over 100,000 people in prison. The budget of the Department of Corrections this year is $2.4 billion.
And if we keep zipping along, we'll need 15 or more additional prisons over the next five years (on top of the 60 we have), costing a couple of billion more in construction, not including the money to run them.
Just to be clear here:
Nobody is talking about being "soft on crime" or coddling criminals.
What they're talking about is how to make inmates less likely to commit new crimes once they get out.
Here's an example: Remember that 33 percent of released inmates go back to prison within three years. But for inmates who go through substance-abuse treatment, that figure is 6.7 percent.
The Department of Corrections also is placing a new emphasis on the concept of "re-entry," taking extra steps to prepare inmates for their return to society.
Seven Florida prisons have some sort of "faith and character-based" programs staffed by volunteer citizens, and are reporting recidivism rates below 10 percent.
"A belief in something outside themselves," is how Allison DeFoor, a former sheriff and judge turned Episcopal priest, describes the goal in a recent article in the Journal of the James Madison Institute.
"I suggest God, but it could be Allah. It could be the arts, or secular humanism, or the labor movement."
(Let's skip, for today, the question of how much business a state prison has getting involved with "faith." The point is the recidivism rate.)
The Legislature needs to consider alternatives to building prison after prison. It might save money. It might save some of us from being future victims of crime. It might even salvage some lives.
To learn more about the Coalition for Smart Justice, visit the Web site of the Collins Center for Public Policy at www.collinscenter.org.
For more on faith and character-based education in Florida's prisons: http://www.dc.state.fl.us/oth/faith/
By Howard Troxler, St. Pete Times Columnist
Published Wednesday, July 15, 2009