Thursday, December 30, 2010

Florida should move away from its expensive, ineffective tough-on-crime philosophy:

To Floridians worried about Gov.-elect Scott's ultra-conservative bent, the only thing more alarming than news he is being advised to shake up the prison system might be news that Mr. Scott is being advised to use Texas as a model.
In fact, the recommended approach should be encouraging to Floridians regardless of party or ideology. Texas is at the forefront of states that have scrapped an ineffective, expensive punishment-first philosophy. If Mr. Scott follows suit, Florida could benefit from a focus on prevention and rehabilitation.
As The Post's Dara Kam reported Sunday, Mr. Scott's advisers are urging him to build a system that diverts nonviolent drug offenders to effective treatment programs that can end the problem instead of recycling them through the state's prisons - at great expense.
For offenders who do go to prison, the new approach would require education and vocational training. Education gives people released from prison a greater chance of getting a job, which is the primary factor in reducing recidivism.
Reforming prisons would be a major test of Mr. Scott's untried ability to lead the Legislature. In the past, lawmakers have made a lot of political mileage out of being tough on crime. Gov. Crist got some of his earliest notoriety as "Chain Gang Charlie" when he advocated a return to that mode of punishment.
Lawmakers also have had a penchant for ordering judges to impose minimum mandatory sentences for various classes of crimes. Getting the Legislature to return proper discretion to judges will take political skill.
It's not hard to see how lawmakers can be conflicted. For example, Gov.-elect Scott is being advised that courts should not be so quick to send offenders back to prison for probation violations. Compare that to four years ago, when incoming Gov. Crist, motivated by the murder of 11-year-old Carlie Brucia by a man with probation violations, pushed a bill through the Legislature to return more probation violators to prison.
A problem has been that crimes make headlines while prevented crimes, by definition, don't draw attention. Statisticians, however, are documenting the positive impact of prevented crimes. In Texas, policy changes saved $900 million in prison costs and preventing a 9 percent increase in the prison population. Encouragingly, Mr. Scott's choice to lead the Department of Corrections, Edwin Buss, advocated similar reforms as head of Indiana's prison system.
Florida spends $2.4 billion on prisons. The state's costs and prison population have been trending up. The goal is to stay tough on criminals who deserve it, but to give a second chance to those who can benefit from one. That isn't "conservative" or "liberal." It's the convergence of common sense and compassion.
- Jac Wilder VerSteeg,
for The Palm Beach Post Editorial Board published 12/29/10

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