For two days, conservatives and liberals told each other how much they agree on one of Florida's most important issues.
That issue is criminal justice, and the new choir sang Monday and Tuesday in Tampa at Justice Summit 2009. Sponsored by the Collins Center for Public Policy and the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the gathering amounted to a pep rally for change that the state has needed for two decades.
What's different? The issues now include money, and Florida's leading business groups care.
For 25 years, Florida's criminal justice policy has been to lock up as many people as possible for as long as possible. The Legislature has approved sentencing guidelines and minimum mandatory sentences. The Legislature has required inmates to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences. Even Pinellas County State Attorney Bernie McCabe, one of Florida's most hard-line prosecutors, says, "We take away a driver's license for durned near everything."
It's the easy political call. No one ever lost an election by being "tough on crime." As more states are learning, however, it's more important to be smart on crime. Lock up only the dangerous. Try to rehabilitate the others. Don't criminalize mental illness or addiction. Treat it. Help ex-offenders reenter society. Turn around a person's life, and you prevent a crime. Smarter. Cheaper. Safer.
Sure, Florida's crime rate is down 16 percent in the past 10 years. But Florida's incarceration rate is up 47 percent, crime has decreased nationally and the tough-on-crime tab has come just when Florida is tapped out.
This year, the Department of Corrections informed the Legislature that Florida would need 19 new prisons. Each would cost about $100 million to build and $25 million to operate. Every year. At $3 billion, the DOC is the third-largest part of the budget. So the big news was that the Legislature approved no new prisons. The Legislature passed no laws that affect who goes to prison or for how long. The price tag was a show-stopper. DOC Secretary Walter McNeil, a former police chief, supports reform.
Most of those in Tampa had seen each other at similar rallies. They run the not-for-profit substance-abuse treatment centers. They serve on the boards of agencies that work to change lives. They minister in faith-based prisons, where the rate of inmates who return to prison — known as recidivism — is lower than for traditional prisons.
The new participants were representatives of the Florida Chamber and Associated Industries of Florida. As speaker after speaker noted, the Legislature, especially the House, listens first to business. AIF President Barney Bishop told the do-gooders not to sound like do-gooders when they lobby legislators next year: "You're business people. You have numbers to show that your business works."
Other numbers show that the status quo doesn't work. One-third of the 30,000-plus inmates released each year go back to prison within two years. Think of all those victims. Think of all that wasted human potential. We could spend a whole other column on the need to keep the Department of Juvenile Justice from becoming just a farm system for the Department of Corrections.
The real star of the show in Tampa was not someone from Florida. It was Jerry Madden, a self-described "hard-line conservative" Texas legislator who sponsored the bill in 2007 that shifted his state away from incarceration at all costs to rehabilitation and treatment where appropriate. "My god, Texas," exclaimed Vickie Lopez Lukis, a Republican who chaired the Governor's Ex-Offender Task Force in 2006. If Texas can be smart on crime, why not Florida?
As Rep. Madden explained: "We didn't touch any sentencing laws. We just started shifting money." In 2008, he survived a primary challenge from a Republican who charged that Rep. Madden was "soft on crime." In 2009, he fought off attempts to undercut the reforms. He's going to run once more in 2010 "because by 2011, we'll have all the numbers to show that it really works."
Florida hasn't done smart for a long time. Here's a good place to start.
By RANDY SCHULTZ Palm Beach Post
Published Friday, Nov. 20, 2009
Randy Schultz is the editor of the editorial page of The Palm Beach Post. His e-mail address is Schultz@pbpost.com