Explosive prison growth demands a smarter approach

March 13, 2013  |  No Comments  |  by Barney Bishop  |  Columns

From the Daytona Beach News Journal

Recently two important developments occurred in the ongoing struggle to keep Floridians safe without breaking the bank.

Department of Corrections Secretary Michael Crews disclosed that his department’s annual deficit had ballooned from about $36 million at the start of the fiscal year to more than $95 million. This explosive growth of red ink was based on decisions both within and beyond DOC’s purview, and legislators involved in the appropriations process expressed understandable concern.

The previous day, the Florida Smart Justice Alliance held a press conference to unveil legislation to increase treatment services and work release opportunities for prison inmates preparing to return to society. At the press conference, the question was appropriately asked how this can be accomplished in light of DOC’s huge deficit. The answer is surprisingly simple: By dealing with many inmates’ problems before they re-enter society, we can reduce their tendency toward recidivism — which saves money and reduces future crime victims.

The Alliance has presented a proposal that will not cost any new tax dollars and will in fact save $15 million, money that can be used to help reduce DOC’s deficit. The plan involves closing a $39-million-a-year prison and shifting its 2,100 beds to provide treatment and work release. This would cost taxpayers just $24 million, producing a savings of $15 million and improving public safety by making it less likely those offenders will commit future crimes.

Predictably, there was opposition from those who prefer the status quo. They point out that Florida’s crime and recidivism rates are lower than before, and suggest that our state’s historic “tough on crime” approach has been sufficient. While these rates have indeed showed improvement, they are not what they could be. And, as DOC’s enormous deficit shows, the cost of this approach remains exorbitant.

Here’s what DOC’s own recidivism report tell us: About 33,000 inmates are released from Florida prisons every year once they have served at least 85 percent of their sentences — including most murderers, rapists and sex offenders. Meanwhile, about 32,000 offenders are sent to prison each year. Of these “new” inmates, 14,000 — more than two in five — are reoffenders, which means they have created at least that many new crime victims.

Of the 33,000 released each year, only 23.4 percent receive any treatment for underlying issues like substance abuse or mental health problems. Even fewer earn a GED. And only a miniscule number receive some type of government-issued ID card, an important step to landing a decent job.

DOC releases prisoners at 12:10 a.m. each morning with nothing but $50 cash and a bus ticket to the closest city. Yet somehow we expect them to be successful on the outside and maintain law-abiding lives. Is this realistic? Clearly not — yet all of us, as taxpayers, continue to pay for this never-ending cycle in the mistaken belief that doing otherwise would sacrifice public safety. Hogwash!

Since 1985, nonprofit providers have been treating, educating and finding jobs for inmates who are nearing the end of their sentences. According to DOC’s own statistics, the overall recidivism rate for nonprofits is 18 percent, significantly lower than the 30 percent rate of DOC-operated programs. The difference is because nonprofit providers have more intensive treatment protocols while department-operated programs spend much less on the one thing that has proven to be effective: treatment.

DOC pays the nonprofits less than it pays itself, so in order to stay afloat the nonprofits are strongly incentivized to help inmates find jobs so they can then get reimbursed for room and board. DOC-operated programs have no such incentive, leading to higher costs and lower results.

For the 2013 legislative session, the Smart Justice Alliance has proposed a dramatically innovative concept that involves no new tax dollars, a way to help reduce DOC’s deficit to the tune of $15 million, and an evidence-based model that will result in fewer crime victims and lower recidivism. The only real question is why anyone — the governor, the Legislature or the Department of Corrections — would oppose this smart, sensible and cost-saving idea.

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