Almost five years ago the “Smart Justice” idea was borne out of the necessity to stop Florida’s unrelenting prison construction program under which then-Gov. Charlie Crist proposed building 19 new prisons, each costing $150 million before prisoners were even interned. Florida TaxWatch in its first Government Cost Savings Task Force Report recommended against this prison-industrial complex, my words not theirs, and a small group decided that we needed to radically change course. Had Crist prevailed, our state’s debt would have increased by over $2 billion.
The premise was simple: if we expected different outcomes – less recidivism – then we had to do business in a smarter fashion. It was decided that diversion on the front-end for non-violent criminals and low-level druggies, education, life skills training, along with substance abuse and mental health services while in prison, and then a successful transitional/re-entry program including work release would save significant dollars, and get us the outcomes that we clearly needed. Both character-based and faith-based programs would be embraced.
Despite a relatively good 32 percent recidivism rate by the Department of Corrections, we can and must do much better if we are to save dollars to spend on more worthy societal needs. Last year, new Juvenile Justice Secretary Wansley Walters championed a statewide Civil Citation program that, if it is as successful as her 15-year-old program in Miami and Tom Olk’s program in Tallahassee, has the potential to save taxpayers $150 million annually. And that’s key because 50 percent of all kids that enter the juvenile justice system will unfortunately go on to prison. If we cut off the head of the snake now, then we have a chance to alter the same old lousy outcomes: innocent victims and costly incarceration.
Because we weren’t advocating early release of any state prisoners nor amending the law requiring they serve 85 percent of their sentence, we received the early support of the Florida Police Benevolent Association and interestingly, prison guards raised their hands to work at faith-based prisons because they are the safest in the state.
To incarcerate 100,000 prisoners, Florida taxpayers pay more than $2 billion annually on our correctional system. More than 35,000 prisoners are released each year and within three years, almost a third of them will be back in prison. To his credit Gov. Rick Scott saw the folly of the status quo and in his budget, fully endorsed the idea of providing services to prisoners to elicit better outcomes.
Now, a recent poll by TaxWatch (www.floridataxwatch.org) and AIF (www.aif.com), which most of the mainstream press ignored, proves that Gov. Scott is leading public opinion even among his most die-hard fans: conservative GOP voters who normally would be expected to be the lock’em up and throw away the key thinkers. The top numbers were shocking – 88 percent support supervised work-release; 86 percent believe “tough on crime” politicians should support community supervision, mandatory drug testing and treatment; 84 percent want non-violent offenders sent to cost-effective alternatives instead of prison; and most intriguing of all was that 81 percent of Republicans believe legislators who send minor, non-violent criminals to supervised work release to repay victims and save taxpayers from footing their prison bills would earn their vote at election time. Well, hallelujah!
Now, the idea of smarter justice has been adopted at the federal level by a group called Right On Crime, I love the name, whose leaders include former FBI Director William Sessions, former Drug Czar Bill Bennett, Newt Gingrich and even Grover Norquist. Former Gov. Jeb Bush has importantly become the first Floridian to sign on and with such enlightened interest among the toughest voters and its leaders, can Florida policy makers be far behind?
This is a cause that we should all care about because the alternative means more crime victims and a costly prison system that is determined to perpetuate itself if we as taxpayers do not say “enough is enough.” Likewise, the business community has a vested interest because when the economy finally improves, we will need employees with skills who want to make a better life.