Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Overtime served: Reforming Florida's violent incarceration mentality

Like other law enforcement officials in the state, Volusia County Sheriff Ben Johnson is sowing undue fear and misinformation about legislative proposals that would reform the state's overly harsh and unsustainably costly prison system. Johnson is following the lead of Brevard County Sheriff Jack Parker, who claims -- wrongly -- that "Florida is funding prisons less and less" while preparing to release offenders early.

Since 2001, when it was at $1.62 billion, the Department of Corrections' budget has increased by 50 percent. It's at $2.43 billion today, a 5.7 percent increase over last year's $2.3 billion. The department's budget devours almost 10 percent of the state's general revenue to maintain a total payroll of 30,500 that keeps 100,000 inmates in prison -- a 3-to-1 per-inmate ratio. That's about eight times better than the state's teacher-pupil ratio. Despite a crime rate that has fallen steadily through the decade, the inmate population has risen 46 percent since 2001.

Criminals aren't getting more violent or committing more crimes. The state's incarceration laws have been made harsher since the mid-1980s (when Florida abolished parole) and the 1990s (when Florida harshed up mandatory sentences on adults and youthful offenders and ended the release of any state prison inmate before he or she serves at least 85 percent of a sentence). Yet, criminologists cast serious doubt on the effectiveness of harsher sentences, which contradict the principle of rehabilitation. It's called a department of corrections, not a department of punishment.

At its current pace, the Florida prison system will need to build, at least, 15 more prisons in the next five years, a $2 billion expense before the cost of running them kicks in. It would be folly. Legislators are looking for a better way. Texas is their example. Texas sentences mirrored Florida's. So did its exploding population. So, Texas changed its corrections approach, focusing especially on drug rehabilitation and education for inmates and sustained rehabilitation programs after release. (Criminologists point to drug rehab's effectiveness: Just 6 percent of violent offenders who have undergone rehab recommit crimes after their release, compared with 33 percent of those who don't get rehab. Yet, in Florida this year, the prison system's drug-treatment programs were cut by $6.2 million, education programs by $3.4 million.)

Texas' new approach worked. The state's prison population steadied. So did the corrections budget. The state's crime rate didn't spike. Florida lawmakers are introducing bills that would replicate some of those approaches, although the focus is more on reversing harsh sentences (still a worthy objective) than funding rehab programs.

Writing on the Sheriff's Office's Web site, Johnson wants residents to oppose "a particularly bad proposal that would grant early release to certain inmates 50-years-old or older as long as they have already served at least 25 years of their sentence." He is also building opposition to another proposal that "would reduce the sentence of dangerous youthful offenders under certain circumstances" -- offenders 15 or younger who were convicted as adults.

Johnson makes it sound as if violent offenders are never released (or should never be released) from prison. He should have a look at Department of Corrections reports. Better yet, he should encourage his readers to do so. Last August alone, 3,073 offenders were released from Florida prisons. Of those, 814, or 26.5 percent, were violent offenders. On average, those violent offenders served 53 months. Johnson says, "This is not the type of person we want roaming our streets again." But every prison system in the nation eventually releases a portion of its violent offenders for the obvious reason that life terms are rare. Johnson also makes it sound as if the proposals, if enacted, would result in immediate releases. Not so. Prisoners would have to petition for their release and have their cases reviewed one by one. It's a restoration of parole by other means.

The question isn't whether they should be released, but when. For two decades Florida opted for longer sentences and fewer second chances, without appreciable results. Those laws are finally coming in for their own corrections.

An Editorial from the Daytona News Journal published 12/29/09

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