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

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Coalition pushes for alternatives to more prisons:

A call by Florida’s most powerful business lobby to halt prison construction and reform the criminal justice system is gaining surprising traction among policy makers in the wake of a deepening budget crisis and growing evidence that building new prison beds will not reduce crime.

Four months after the head of Associated Industries of Florida stunned lawmakers with his plea to slow prison growth, a who’s-who of business, religious and political leaders are asking Gov. Charlie Crist to consider alternatives to incarceration for non-violent offenders, particularly drug addicts.

Crist and state lawmakers this week received an “open letter’’ from opinion-makers calling for a “bold and serious conversation about justice reform.”

The statement was signed by three former state attorneys general — Jim Smith, Bob Butterworth and Richard Doran — along with retired Department of Corrections secretary James McDonough and the heads of the Florida Association of Counties and the Florida Catholic Conference.

“At a time when Florida is in serious recession and facing a deep state budget crisis, the $2 billion-plus budget of the Florida Department of Corrections has grown larger; and without reform, that budget will continue to grow at a pace that crowds out other mission-critical state services such as education, human service needs, and environmental protection,” the group wrote.

Calling itself the Coalition for Smart Justice, the group is asking state leaders to bolster education, drug and alcohol treatment and faith-based and character-building programs both within the state prison system and in community settings as an alternative to prison.

Coalition members also want Crist to “immediately implement’’ a bill passed by the Legislature in 2008 that created “the much needed’’ Correctional Policy Advisory Council to offer new directions for criminal justice administration.

Staying the course, coalition members wrote, will lead to “too many non-violent individuals being incarcerated, too many prisons needing to be built at astounding public cost (and) too many young people moving from the juvenile justice system into the adult justice system.”

At the root of the state’s failures, the coalition says, is the unwillingness of lawmakers to invest in programs — such as job training, education and substance-abuse treatment — that can break the cycle of crime and reduce recidivism.

McDonough, the state’s former drug czar and prisons chief, said Florida can avoid the need to build a new $100 million prison each year by spending one-fifth that amount on drug treatment. “The math is irrefutable,” McDonough said. “That’s $100 million right there that you don’t have to spend immediately.”

That’s an assertion former Manatee sheriff Charlie Wells scoffs at, as a veteran of the debate over the effectiveness of prisons in reducing and deterring crime. Wells said he is concerned the movement to turn the state away from building new prisons will lead to the repealing of legislation he pioneered in the 1990s that mandates inmates serve at least 85 percent of their prison terms.

“I think it is a bad mistake to be flirting with the idea of cutting back building prisons under the guise of looking for ways to cut costs,” said Wells. “If we stop building prisons, overcrowding will force legislators to repeal that law, which would be a serious mistake.”

Wells said advocates of diversion programs for non-violent offenders in lieu of prison time often do not tell the whole story about offenders sentenced to prison.

“That argument has been there since I started fighting this battle. But what always gets lost in translation is the length of someone’s record who is finally is sent to prison. Someone who is going to prison for a so-called ‘minor offense’ has most likely been arrested a significant number of times,” said Wells. “So I think it is absurd to start chipping away at the most significant aspect of crime prevention, which is sentencing and punishment.”

Gretl Plessinger, DOC’s spokeswoman, said the equation is far more complicated in response to the coalition’s claims. Since the prison system runs on a five-year cycle based on “strategic projections,” the corrections agency cannot simply “stop construction on a dime.”

Miami Herald

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Tackle prison overcrowding from the other end

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.

Fund programs

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.

Cutting corners

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

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Restoration of Rights workshop--THIS WEEKEND

Do you know someone who has lost their civil rights, including their right to vote, due to a conviction for a felony? The Sarasota branches of the NAACP and ACLU are sponsoring a restoration of rights workshop at the Selby Goodwill at 1732 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, Way, from 10 a.m -3:00 p.m. on Saturday June 13. Please help me get the word out.

√ Assistance in preparing documents for re‐enfranchisement (your right to vote).
√ A road map for restoring and protecting your civil rights.
√ Direction to employment and training resources in your community.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Jailing the mentally ill strains justice:

Every jailer in Florida knows the face of mental illness.

County jails throughout the state house thousands of people with serious mental conditions. Some of them can't maintain a life on the outside -- as soon as they are released, they commit a new, usually petty crime and end up back in jail. Counties pay staggering bills for psychiatric medications and treatment. They struggle to house inmates whose illnesses make them vulnerable (or in isolated cases, dangerous) in the jail's general population. And as community treatment centers close, the number of mentally ill people in prisons and jails increases, along with the burden on their families and the taxpayers who pay for fruitless rounds of arrest and incarceration.

Florida lawmakers had the opportunity this year to make a fundamental change in the way local jails and state prisons deal with people who have severe mental illness. But they fumbled, delaying action on a bill that would have created a new system for mentally ill offenders.

A study conducted by the Council of State Governments and published Monday in the journal Psychiatric Services illustrates how badly Florida leaders dropped the ball. Researchers administered psychiatric screenings to more than 20,000 inmates in five jails in Maryland and New York, concluding that 14.5 percent of men and 31 percent of women booked into county jails had at least one serious mental illness. The number includes only people with very serious afflictions such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and major depression -- excluding those with lesser (but often debilitating) diagnoses of anxiety disorders or other mental conditions.

The study didn't cover Florida, but the state's own numbers suggest similar concerns. According to a 2007 study, an estimated 15,000 inmates in Florida's jails on any given day have serious mental illnesses -- roughly one in four. And like the national study, the percentage of inmates with mental illness has climbed steadily in Florida.

The national study suggests several factors behind this increase. People with mental illness are more likely to be visible to police because they are less capable of controlling their behavior. They're also more likely to use illegal drugs, especially if they don't have access to treatment and psychiatric medication. The correlation between mental illness and homelessness is significant, and homeless people are far more likely to be arrested. Finally -- and this thread runs through the entire discussion -- the nation's mental-health treatment system is badly overburdened.

Many people believe the public is safer if people with mental illness are confined, even if that means imprisonment in an inappropriate setting like jail. The new study disputes that impression as well, pointing out the "weak correlation" between mental illness and violent behavior. In fact, many behavioral-health specialists believe that imprisonment increases the likelihood of violent crime, by further destabilizing people with certain mental disorders, and making them more likely perpetrators or victims of crime.

Counties are trying individually to confront the problems of mental illness in their jails. Volusia County, for example, recently hired Stewart-Marchman-Act Corp. to oversee treatment in its correctional facilities.

Still, it's not enough. The bill that failed to pass the Legislature this year would have sparked a comprehensive overhaul of Florida's criminal-justice system, setting up better community-diversion programs to keep people out of jail and creating transitions for people with mental illness who are about to be released from prison. But Gov. Charlie Crist shouldn't wait for the next legislative session -- many of the reforms the bill called for can be instituted by executive order instead, and the state Department of Children & Families can start planning others.

DCF Secretary George Sheldon says that the hundreds of millions of dollars Florida spends incarcerating people with mental illness is the "worst money we spend." It's time for a change, and Crist can help to bring it about.

Published in the Daytona News-Journal on June 7, 2009

Thursday, June 04, 2009

A New Jail for Sarasota County?

There's been lots of jail talk these days in Sarasota County; The current jail is over capacity. Now some local leaders are trying to find the money and a place for a new one. But not everyone is on board.
From Fruitville Road to Sumter Boulevard...even Buchan Airport in Englewood. Those are just a few of the 15 or so sites submitted and being discussed by a local committee, rating possible new jail sites. "We are moving geographically around the county," says Criminal Justice Policy Holder for the county Wayne Applebee.

The group meets every other week. First criteria is government-owned land or land submitted by property owners. 30 acres are wanted. Then there is the whole location thing. "The access, the ownership, development and construction costs, environmental impacts, costs going into the future by where its location is."

Thursday, Sarasota County and city commissioners were briefed on the latest. While the whole county is being explored, it seems north county might not be the best option. "We are probably looking mid-county or south county...the North Port area," says Sarasota County Commissioner Joe Barbetta. Some North Port commissioners have said they're not opposed to the jail there.

One location many have suggested is in mid-county, off Knight's Trail, right next to the dump. It's centrally located with plenty of land. However, there was already an attempt to put a jail near there in the past, says Barbetta. "It was probably the largest planning commission ever. Over 600 people showed up when the jail was proposed. It was at least nine or ten years ago...vehement opposition."

But also Barbetta says he's not sure he wants to spend the estimated $60 million to dump inmates anywhere. "Is something wrong with our system that we keep building these monstrosity-sized jails? Is the problem deeper and is it more social service related?"

The county is also looking for land for a community corrections center. That's different than the jail. "We are in need of a smaller community corrections facility for light to medium security; Somewhere in the county, but we don't want to impact the neighborhoods."

Future site selections that might not be popular when it turns out to be in your back yard. "It's a tough problem for all communities. I just think if we put money in bricks and mortar it's not really the solution."

The current plan calls for enough room to house nearly 1,000 more inmates by the year 2035 in Sarasota County. The group searching for sites says they would like to have their top picks by the fall.

You can go to the site rating meeting for yourself. They are every other Wednesday at the Sandra Sims Terry Community Center in Laurel. The next meeting is June 17th.

As Reported by ABC Channel 7