Scott Has Delivered on Promise to Create Jobs

October 14, 2013  |  No Comments  |  by Barney Bishop  |  Columns

Published in: Context Florida

The growing conventional wisdom is that former Gov. Charlie Crist is a shoo-in to become Florida’s next governor.  Conventional wisdom is wrong.

The mainstream media in Florida is going to endorse Charlie.  They love him because he loves the press and knows how to whip up a crowd with his rhetorical talents.  There certainly is no question that Charlie is a gifted speaker. He’s also photogenic and personable. He supports everything that everyone wants.

But the problem is that Charlie has been on both sides of just about every issue at one time or another, save for the environment.

A recent blog mentioned that Charlie’s problem is not with elected Democrats but with the party’s rank-and-file.  Hogwash.

Grass-roots Dems don’t really care who their nominee is so long as he or she has the chance to win. Remember that no Democrat has been elected governor since Lawton Chiles.  It’s the elected Democrats who are worried because of the significant baggage that Charlie will lug into the race.

Now that Alex Sink has dropped out of the race, Charlie has a clear shot at the nomination, unless U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson decides to get into the race, which is unlikely.  I mean Nelson is in the twilight of his career and he has more than five years left in his Senate term. More important, he never has to solicit another campaign contribution again.

As for Gov. Rick Scott, he certainly is not the fave among reporters. However, he has kept his eye on the ball on the one issue that matters most to everyone – job creation.

Florida’s job growth has been significant and the state has recovered from the Great Recession better than most states.  Florida’s unemployment rate continues improve and remains below the national rate.

In addition, Scott has cut taxes, reduced state debt by $2 billion, made state employees pay into their pensions, reduced property taxes and held teachers to account for the performance of their students.  Sure he cut education spending, but so did just about every other governor in the country.

At the same time, when state revenues started increasing, he invested heavily in education.  This governor even called for the state’s higher education system to produce a $10,000. Had a Democratic governor proposed this, the newspapers would have pronounced him or her a genius.

Mind you that this election will be close because of what Scott is not.  He’s not slick, he’s not a rhetorical stem-winder, he’s not a back slapper. He’s not, well, a politician.

He’s a businessman who promised to focus on job creation.  As a result, Florida was recently named by Area Development, a business magazine, as the No. 1 state for renewed consideration after the recession.

Convincing companies to move to our state isn’t easy.  It takes time  and perseverance, and a lot of other states are trying to do the same thing.  The difference is that Scott and this Legislature are making Florida attractive to companies.  Job creation is the key and Scott has delivered.

Public Education Has Failed to Prepare Most Grads for Workplace

October 14, 2013  |  No Comments  |  by Barney Bishop  |  Columns

Published in: Context Florida

Education continues to be contentious in Florida and for good reason.

Public education has failed miserably to adequately prepare most graduates for the workplace.  I say most because students in the top 10 to 15 percent of their class do well. But the rest are at best mediocre.

I’m a well-taught product of Florida’s public education but that was two generations ago and much has happened since then.  For most employers, a high school or college degree is less meaningful than it once was.  No longer can employers depend on a piece of sheepskin to demonstrate that the individual possessing it has rudimentary skills.

Employers have discovered that grade inflation has almost become the norm.  Consequently, when many of today’s graduates are asked to think outside of the box, compose a lucid memorandum, draft a grammatically correct letter, or succinctly explain an idea, they often fail.

America’s education system for many students has not kept pace with the demands of our technologically driven world.

That’s why we were fortunate that during Gov. Jeb Bush’s tenure – and since – he dedicated himself to becoming Florida’s “Education Governor.”  Some will disagree with his ideas, but no one can argue about Florida’s improving educational outcomes.

His idea of doing away with social promotion was cutting edge even though it still exists.  His idea of every student selecting a career path in the sixth grade was brilliant because it helps a student to focus on a goal and work toward it.

Likewise, the FCAT addressed the need for students to be tested and compared to other Florida students.  Now Common Core has been presented as a way for all American students to be compared on core competencies.

And while I hope that Florida students will do well compared to students in other states, what we really need to focus on is the ability of our students to compete with students in South Korea, China, Singapore and Japan.

Recently the Council for Aid to Education created a new standardized test called the Collegiate Learning Assessment Plus (CLA+). It is designed to demonstrate to employers what a graduate can actually do.  “Employers want to see something that they can rely on,” according to Michael Poliakoff, vice president of policy for the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.

“The test will measure analysis, problem-solving, writing, quantitative reasoning and reading” and will be administered to seniors at a growing number of colleges and universities around the country.

We need to reform America’s educational system and resist the tendency to defend the status quo.

If you’re frustrated because your child can’t get a job, think about how employers feel about the lack of quality graduates they deal with every day.  Reforming education is essential: Just ask any employer.

A Pox on Both Political Parties

October 14, 2013  |  No Comments  |  by Barney Bishop  |  Columns

Published in: Context Florida

Our beautiful 237-year experiment in democracy has brought us to a difficult crossroad.  Either we are going to continue to lurch from financial crisis to financial crisis or someone in Washington, D.C., is going to have to get over their childish temper tantrums.

At this point in time I’m ready to declare a pox on both political parties for their unwillingness to sit down and negotiate.

The problem is that both political parties are trying to score political points at each other’s expense and America is the one suffering for it.

Instead, all of us should be demanding that our elected leaders put aside their important differences and do the country’s business.  Note that I acknowledged that the differences are important, but in a country where compromise is expected everyday by every average American, why do we allow our politicians to behave like spoiled, rotten children?

Take President Obama, for example.  He came in riding on a white steed and he promised us all “change.”  He hasn’t changed a single way that Washington does business.  Instead, he now boldly says that he will not “negotiate” on the debt limit.  Mr. President, we (I use the word “we” loosely because I didn’t vote for him either time – but he is still the president) elected you to lead this country, and you’re going to go down in history as the most obstinate president we’ve ever had.

So they want to cut the heart out of your health-care program.  Is that a surprise to anyone given the way it was passed, without any bipartisan support?

Inasmuch as the Republicans control the House, you are going to have to work with them because they are part of our government.  They have a voice in the affairs of this country and you can’t ignore them without making this country look like any run-of-the-mill banana republic.

Oh, you can blame the Republicans all you want, but everyone knows in any fight that there is generally plenty of blame to go around.

Republicans, you have to bear responsibility for your actions as well.  Look, I loathe Obamacare.  But to prove what you are saying, you have to have enough faith in what you’re preaching.  Get it?

Obamacare is going to collapse of its own weight.  It’s too massive, too unworkable, too expensive, too confusing and for all of the promises that were made, very little if any of it is ever going to come true.

If the unions, who supported this ill-fated idea, can now say with a straight face that the working men and women of this country are going to get screwed by this socialistic medical debacle, isn’t that good enough for you?

Don’t defund Obamacare now, because your views, which by the way are shared by the vast majority of independents (and these are the folks that you want in any election!), will never get proven.  If you are ever successful in defunding Obamacare, the Democrats are just going to say it failed because you made it fail.  Let it fail on its own – because it will!

And to show what little respect both Dems and Repubs have for the intelligence of the American people, you then cut yourselves and your staff in for an exemption on Obamacare?  How despicable can y’all be?

I say again, a pox on both of your political parties.  Because if you think that the tea party movement is unwieldy, unorthodox and unforgiving, wait until you stir the common folk across this land. Then we’ll finally realize that the only thing important to each of you is your own measly existence — at the expense of the greatest political experiment ever devised by mankind.

Better Way to Shoot a Turkey

May 22, 2013  |  No Comments  |  by Barney Bishop  |  Columns

Published in: Sunshine State News

For 27 years now, Florida TaxWatch has been announcing its annual Turkey List. As a lobbyist who has specialized in putting “Member Projects,” as we like to call them, into the state budget, this is a time-honored process.

As a taxpayer I have long admired TaxWatch and its leader Dominic Calabro for his unwavering commitment to being a relentless watchdog of government spending and a tireless advocate for inciting more government efficiency. And as a proud TaxWatch board member for the last six or so years, I have come to realize that every state needs just such a group to hold elected – and unelected — officials accountable, which is why TaxWatch was recognized by its peers last year as the very best in the entire country!

I was dismayed to recently read Senate President Don Gaetz’s comments about TaxWatch and its Turkey List. I can understand his angst that some of his projects were on the list because I have often found many of my projects on the list as well, and I’ve spent countless hours over the years debating with Dominic and his staff the proper definition of a turkey. Suffice to say that I have yet to be successful in changing their minds and for that I have even greater respect for their perseverance in this cause of rooting out budget stuffing.

Having said that, I concur with the president and Sen. Joe Negron that elected officials have as much right as unelected bureaucrats to put items in the budget. I just wouldn’t have used the words that the president did in trying to make his point.

I’m conflicted because I deem myself to be a fiscal conservative but I also recognize that we elect our officials to make decisions on expenditures for the rest of us. Most of those decisions are extremely difficult to make as there are few easy choices to make in whether children will receive pre-K schooling from certified teachers or whether senior citizens will have the opportunity to access medical prescriptions at a competitive price. That’s why it’s so easy to criticize anyone that has to produce a budget because it’s always damned if you do or damned if you don’t.

However, I also want them to put hometown projects in the budget because it is part of the American way to use government funds to benefit us all in the form of a new park, a new fire engine for a rural community, funding for an efficacious social service program, a courthouse repair, etc. Interestingly, some I think are good, but many of them also seem a trifle expensive and very limiting in their overall economic impact, and I suspect that most of us would agree too. So, what’s a good fiscal conservative supposed to do?

TaxWatch makes a valid point, from its perspective, that the earlier an item is in the budget the more legitimacy it has. I understand that thinking completely, but I disagree with the premise. I actually believe that more legitimacy comes from the legislative branch which is constitutionally-driven to deliver a budget to the governor for his approval – or not.

Is it possible to have it both ways? Yes and former Gov. Jeb Bush, to his credit, devised a system called at that time Community Budget Issue Request (CBIR, pronounced “See-bur”) which required all legislators to submit a standard form which asked all of the relevant questions that a legislative body and a governor would want to know before it is approved. Is it for recurring revenue, what’s its past success statistics, is there a local match and if so what is the amount and ratio, is the organization a nonprofit, has it received funding before and what were those outcomes, etc.?

I don’t really recall when the CBIR form disappeared, probably during the term of Gov. Charlie Crist, but it seems readily apparent to me that we need to return to just such a system because it invokes transparency and accountability, the watchwords of today. Furthermore, it ensures that all projects are graded on an equitable basis going forward.

This came to mind when I saw that Gov. Rick Scott had recently written a letter to two Member Projects (I don’t like using the term “turkeys” though I have to admit that it’s catchy and understandable) asking them to return funds if they do not reach the high water marks that they set for themselves. This is what a good governor should do; hold the requesting agency to the standard that it set for itself when it requested the money. Just like any other Member Project that professes certain outcomes, these need to be measured and documented to ensure that taxpayers aren’t getting fleeced.

This is a reasonable compromise which satisfies both TaxWatch’s desire to see that projects are properly vetted, while at the same time ensuring the right of legislators to put projects into the budget. Sen. Negron is right when he says that many Member Projects are never approved and that this is what budget conference committees are all about. Likewise, TaxWatch is right that there needs to be a proper vetting for all projects.

There are always two sides to every story. While our elected officials are charged with producing a balanced budget, we also desperately need taxpayers to have their voices heard if we are to preserve this democratic process that has served us so well for these last 237 years. Neither may be always right, but both sides must always be heard because there is value to each in their respective philosophies.

The Hypocrisy of the Mainstream Media

May 21, 2013  |  No Comments  |  by Barney Bishop  |  Columns

As featured in Sunshine State News

The mainstream media have had it in for Gov. Rick Scott ever since he decided to run for office.

It was exacerbated when he decided to ignore the editorial boards which were, in hindsight, a smart decision because not a single one of them would have endorsed him in any event.

Now we all know that the governor is not a seasoned politician and for many voters that was part of his attraction. He’s not a polished speaker either, but he’s able to articulate his position to his followers, even though most, if not all reporters, are against everything he stands for.

The fact that he has carried out what he said he would do has only made matters worse for the left-of-center Florida press corps. As a result, the governor can’t get a fair shake even if he were a James Bond martini.

Recently, Gov. Scott proposed that Florida universities and colleges should establish a $10,000 college degree. Now this is something that every Floridian would desperately hope for in these very tough times, but to hear the press and critics report it, the governor was Wal-Mart-izing higher education. Never mind that Wal-Mart is the largest retail company in the world and an extraordinary success story. Somehow the governor was doing Florida wrong.

Yet, every state college eventually decided to accept the challenge and as a result, they will deliver a college degree for this reasonable sum. Had a Democratic governor or nominee proposed this idea, he would have been hailed as the second coming. But this GOP governor? Nope. Nada.

Recently, the governor decided to acquiesce to the will of the citizenry in allowing for the expansion of Medicaid with federal largess. The public is overwhelmingly in favor of this position. Interestingly, almost every reporter made it into a flip-flop with headlines blaring. Yet, just last week U.S. Sens. Rob Portman and Mark Warner, both Republicans, decided to switch their position and support gay marriage. But national reporters, in favor of this left-of-center position didn’t chide either senator with a story of flip-flopping; no, they reported instead that their thinking had “evolved.”

Now, if that isn’t the pot calling the kettle black, I don’t know what is. You see, how a reporter uses key code words will tell you exactly what you want to know about their political leanings. And for the Florida press corps, their unwritten rule is that Gov. Scott must be demonized every step of the way.

Since this governor has taken office, he has committed himself to just two things: that he will focus every day on creating jobs for Floridians and that he will always keep in mind the average citizen and what they need in order to survive this chaotic and lurching economy. So, the fact that the unemployment rate has gone significantly down is just a matter of fact, not the erstwhile work of a governor committed to job growth.

Yet, I will make a prediction right now, 19 months before the next election. Every newspaper, save perhaps one, will endorse the Democratic nominee who almost certainly will be Charlie Crist. For a long time I didn’t think that the Democratic establishment would accept Charlie, but recently, when former Gov. Bob Graham opined that he had no problem with Charlie becoming the nominee, it became clear to me that it is a fait accompli. It seems Democrats are willing to win at any cost, and so they are willing to embrace anyone despite their sordid past.

Whether it’s getting rid of numerous rules that make doing business in Florida challenging, or clearing the way for the Everglades cleanup, pouring state dollars into our ports to keep Florida at the forefront of economic competitiveness in exports/imports, supporting an across-the-board teachers raise and a proposed raise for state employees, it’s readily apparent that Gov. Scott will be cast in the harsh light of flip-flopping, rather than the genteel moniker of evolutionary thinking.

Regardless of what our governor does or says in the next two years, Florida-based reporters will try to paint a thin veneer of fairness.

Don’t be fooled.

It will all just be a façade, because they can’t wait to have a do-nothing, always-looking-for-the-next-job Charlie back in the governor’s mansion with his proverbial hand-over-his-heart mouthing, “I love Florida, I love Florida with all my heart.”

We were all fooled once and I certainly hope that we don’t get fooled again.

We spend way too much on recidivism

April 19, 2013  |  No Comments  |  by Barney Bishop  |  Columns

From the Tallahassee Democrat

There are many reasons the Legislature should embrace “smart justice” legislation, including significant benefits to public safety. But as the House and Senate get down to the nitty-gritty of adopting a final budget, there is an even more compelling reason: money. A lot of it.

The Florida Department of Corrections is working hard to eliminate a budget deficit that swelled to more than $95 million earlier this year. The Legislature and taxpayers have an obvious desire to reduce DOC spending without jeopardizing public safety. One area ripe for savings seems obvious to the Florida Smart Justice Alliance: recidivism. Simply put, the state of Florida is spending entirely too much money incarcerating the same people over and over again, without doing enough to make sure that, once they get out, they stay out.

How much is too much? Florida taxpayers are spending more than a quarter-billion dollars a year to incarcerate more than 14,000 “new” inmates who have been in prison at least once before. Overall, almost half of the state’s prison population is made up of repeat offenders, at a yearly cost of $799.5 million.

This is a big part of Florida’s corrections problem: We aren’t correcting inmates. In most cases, we are just incarcerating them.

Statistics and common sense tell us that, when a felon is arrested again, he probably has committed more than just the single crime that led to this most recent arrest. If the offender has a substance abuse issue, it’s likely there are numerous victims whose homes or cars were broken into to help fuel his habit. Why would we allow that to happen? We know these inmates have addictions, and we had them captured in our prisons for years — yet in most cases we did nothing to help them address their addictions.

This isn’t about being soft on crime or somehow excusing their criminal actions because of alcohol, drug or mental health problems. It’s about being smart on justice by using our resources to help break the cycle of crime, arrest, imprisonment, release … and crime again.

An excellent example of the need for a focused direction on treatment and education is House Judiciary Committee Chair Dennis Baxley’s bill (HB 7121) and its companion by Sen. Thad Altman (SB 1032), which would ensure that Florida-born inmates are able to receive a state-issued ID card or other form of identification when they leave prison. This seemingly small item is a crucial step in an ex-inmate’s effort to secure housing, a job or even a medical prescription refill. Since lack of a job can be one of the top problems for an ex-inmate, helping them in this regard will be of tremendous benefit for society. This can be done without a significant expenditure, and in exchange Florida could realize substantial savings.

Everyone wants a safer society. Florida’s overall crime and recidivism rates have been declining as a result of the state’s deserved reputation for “get tough” criminal justice policies, effective law enforcement and a change in Department of Corrections policies regarding technical violations of probation.

We now have an opportunity to lower these rates even further and realize dramatic cost savings, if we institute smart, intelligent policies that do not undercut the requirement that all prisoners serve at least 85 percent of their sentences.

With Florida spending $255 million annually on re-offenders, we must consider a different approach. We must recognize that by providing treatment for more felons who have underlying issues, we can improve public safety and save considerable tax dollars. Intelligent alternatives can lead to the desired outcomes that taxpayers expect of our policymakers.

Electronic monitoring can help ensure public safety

April 19, 2013  |  No Comments  |  by Barney Bishop  |  Columns

From St Petersburg Blog

The following is a guest op-ed from Barney Bishop III, the president and chief executive officer of the Florida Smart Justice Alliance, a statewide coalition of organizations committed to changes that make communities safer, save the taxpayers money and hold offenders accountable while helping them learn to live law-abiding lives.

Government’s first responsibility is to provide for the safety of its citizenry, and Florida has historically done an excellent job of protecting us from those who would do us harm. Along with effective law enforcement, a key component in Florida’s declining rate of violent crime is the state’s adherence to a rule that all felons must serve at least 85 percent of their sentences before they can be released.

Since the vast majority of felons are going to be released back into our communities – 87 percent of them within five years, according to the head of Florida’s Department of Corrections – we need to use every tool available to ensure that they do not commit new crimes and create new victims. Technological advances can play a vital role in this effort, including Florida’s use of electronic monitoring (“ankle bracelets”) for some prisoners.

The Florida Smart Justice Alliance has consistently advocated for increased use of electronic monitoring.  We applaud Governor Rick Scott for his commitment to public safety in recommending that $7.5 million for work release inmates to be fitted with these devices whenever they work a job outside a secure facility.

Work release is part of a step-down system available to certain inmates, at the discretion of the Department of Corrections. The department conducts a careful classification and risk assessment, and then determines which inmates should be eligible for a job in the community as they near their end of sentence.  These inmates are housed at non-secure facilities, which are always located in urban areas around the state because that’s where the jobs are.

Prison inmates, both violent and non-violent, are coming back to live among us. The only question is whether, having served their time, they will return as law-abiding citizens or resume a life of crime. We can dramatically improve the odds of the first, better option by using tools and providing skills to help them succeed within our communities.

Work release is one of those tools, and electronic monitoring makes it a safer option. Most ankle bracelets are tamper-proof and can track an inmate within a few feet with state-of-the-art GPS technology, even inside a building. This means that if an inmate attempts to remove the bracelet or stray from where he is supposed to be, law enforcement can know quickly. While electronic monitoring by itself won’t prevent a work release inmate from committing a crime, by pinpointing his location at all times the device will make it almost impossible for him to argue that he was somewhere else at the time.

This issue is particularly important in populous counties like Pinellas, where Sen. Jack Latvala and Rep. Ed Hooper have worked tirelessly to ensure the safety of the neighborhood around work release facilities.

In a recent pilot program by a non-profit provider of work release programs, not a single inmate deviated or attempted to remove his ankle bracelet during a 90-day test. Since there is no foolproof test to tell us conclusively who should and should not be allowed to work in the community before leaving prison, we must rely on such technological tools to help minimize the risk of danger.

We could improve the odds by requiring the department to allow only non-violent felons to be in work release programs.  But then what would we do with all the violent inmates who will be getting out with no education or job skills, and no realistic prospects for success? Are we supposed to deny them all opportunity to work and then just hope they successfully reintegrate themselves into society on their own?

The Smart Justice Alliance believes the best hope to protect society is to implement the Governor’s recommendation, making sure all work release inmates wear ankle bracelets whenever they are outside the facility. This will help keep them in their assigned locations, ensuring that public safety remains job number one for Florida government.

The Florida Senate has put the $7.5 million in its criminal justice budget.  The Florida Smart Justice Alliance is optimistic the House will do likewise, because failing to accept the Governor’s recommendation would put our citizens at greater risk. Nothing can be foolproof, but with electronic monitoring we will at least know that our state government did its best to keep us safe.

A smarter way to run Florida’s correctional system

April 18, 2013  |  No Comments  |  by Barney Bishop  |  Columns

From the Miami Herald

There are many reasons the Legislature should embrace “Smart Justice” legislation, including significant benefits to public safety. But as the House and Senate get down to the nitty-gritty of adopting a final budget, there is an even more compelling reason: money. A lot of it.

The Florida Department of Corrections is working hard to eliminate a budget deficit that swelled to more than $95 million earlier this year. The Legislature and taxpayers have an obvious desire to reduce DOC spending without jeopardizing public safety. One area ripe for savings seems obvious to the Florida Smart Justice Alliance: recidivism. Simply put, the state of Florida is spending entirely too much money incarcerating the same people over and over again, without doing enough to make sure that once they get out, they stay out.

How much is too much? Florida taxpayers are spending more than a quarter-billion dollars a year to incarcerate more than 14,000 “new” inmates who had been in prison at least once before. Overall, almost half of the state’s prison population is made up of repeat offenders, at a yearly cost of $799.5 million.

This is a big part of Florida’s corrections problem: We aren’t correcting inmates. In most cases we are just incarcerating them. We can’t afford to do that anymore without providing treatment for underlying issues (so often, substance-abuse or mental-health issues) and educational/vocational services to help them live law-abiding lives once they are released.

Statistics and common sense tell us that when a previous felon is caught again, he has probably committed more than just the single crime that led to this most recent arrest. If the offender has a substance abuse issue, it’s likely there are numerous crime victims whose homes or cars were broken into to help fuel his drug habit. Why would we allow that to happen? We know these inmates have addictions, and we had them captured in our prisons for years – yet in most cases we did nothing to help them address their addictions.

This isn’t about being soft on crime, to somehow excuse their criminal actions because of alcohol, drug or mental health problems. It’s about being smart on justice by using our resources to help break the cycle of crime, arrest, imprisonment, release . . . and crime again.

An excellent example of the need for a focused direction on treatment and education is House Judiciary Committee Chair Dennis Baxley’s bill (HB 7121) and its companion by Sen. Thad Altman (SB 1032), which would ensure that Florida-born inmates are able to receive a state-issued ID card or other form of identification when they leave prison.

This seemingly small item is a crucial step in an ex-inmate’s effort to secure housing, a job or even a medical prescription refill. Since lack of a job can be one of the top problems for an ex-inmate, helping them in this regard will be of tremendous benefit for society. This can be done without a significant expenditure, and in exchange Florida could realize substantial savings.

Everyone wants a safer society. Florida’s overall crime and recidivism rates have been declining as a result of the state’s deserved reputation for “get tough” criminal justice policies, effective law enforcement and a change in Department of Corrections policies regarding technical violations of probation. We now have an opportunity to lower these rates even further and realize dramatic cost savings, if we institute smart, intelligent policies that do not undercut the requirement that all prisoners serve at least 85 percent of their sentences.

With Florida spending $255 million annually on reoffenders, we must consider a different approach. We must recognize that by providing treatment for more felons who have underlying issues, we can improve public safety and save considerable tax dollars. Intelligent alternatives can lead to the desired outcomes that taxpayers expect of our policymakers.

Barney Bishop III is the president and chief executive officer of the Florida Smart Justice Alliance.

Too much money spent on Florida’s repeat offenders

April 16, 2013  |  No Comments  |  by Barney Bishop  |  Columns

From BizPacReview

With Too Much Spent on Recidivism, Florida Must Embrace a Different Way.

There are many reasons the Legislature should embrace Smart Justice legislation, including significant benefits to public safety. But as the House and Senate get down to the nitty-gritty of adopting a final budget, there is an even more compelling reason: money. A lot of it.

The Florida Department of Corrections is working hard to eliminate a budget deficit that swelled to more than $95 million earlier this year. The Legislature and taxpayers have an obvious desire to reduce DOC spending without jeopardizing public safety. One area ripe for savings seems obvious to theFlorida Smart Justice Alliancerecidivism. Simply put, the state of Florida is spending entirely too much money incarcerating the same people over and over again, without doing enough to make sure that once they get out, they stay out.

How much is too much? Florida taxpayers are spending more than a quarter-billion dollars a year to incarcerate more than 14,000 “new” inmates who had been in prison at least once before. Overall, almost half of the state’s prison population is made up of repeat offenders, at a yearly cost of $799.5 million.

This is a big part of Florida’s corrections problem: We aren’t correcting inmates. In most cases we are just incarcerating them. We can’t afford to do that anymore without providing treatment for underlying issues (so often, substance abuse or mental health issues) and educational/vocational services to help them live law-abiding lives once they are released.

Statistics and common sense tell us that when a previous felon is caught again, he has probably committed more than just the single crime that led to this most recent arrest. If the offender has a substance abuse issue, it’s likely there are numerous crime victims whose homes or cars were broken into to help fuel his drug habit. Why would we allow that to happen? We know these inmates have addictions, and we had them captured in our prisons for years – yet in most cases we did nothing to help them address their addictions.

This isn’t about being soft on crime, to somehow excuse their criminal actions because of alcohol, drug or mental health problems. It’s about being smart on justice by using our resources to help break the cycle of crime, arrest, imprisonment, release … and crime again.

An excellent example of the need for a focused direction on treatment and education is House Judiciary Committee Chair Dennis Baxley’s bill (HB 7121) and its companion by Senator Thad Altman (SB 1032), which would ensure that Florida-born inmates are able to receive a state issued ID card or other form of identification when they leave prison. This seemingly small item is a crucial step in an ex-inmate’s effort to secure housing, a job or even a medical prescription refill. Since lack of a job can be one of the top problems for an ex-inmate, helping them in this regard will be of tremendous benefit for society. This can be done without a significant expenditure, and in exchange Florida could realize substantial savings.

Everyone wants a safer society. Florida’s overall crime and recidivism rates have been declining as a result of the state’s deserved reputation for “get tough” criminal justice policies, effective law enforcement and a change in Department of Corrections policies regarding technical violations of probation. We now have an opportunity to lower these rates even further and realize dramatic cost savings, if we institute smart, intelligent policies that do not undercut the requirement that all prisoners serve at least 85 percent of their sentences.

With Florida spending $255 million annually on reoffenders, we must consider a different approach. We must recognize that by providing treatment for more felons who have underlying issues, we can improve public safety and save considerable tax dollars. Intelligent alternatives can lead to the desired outcomes that taxpayers expect of our policymakers.

Barney Bishop: Tackle DOC’s budget deficit with smart justice

March 15, 2013  |  No Comments  |  by Barney Bishop  |  Columns

From the Tallahassee Democrat

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 news conference to unveil legislation (SB 1032) to increase treatment services and work release opportunities for prison inmates preparing to return to society. At the news 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 the number of 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 tells 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 re-offenders, 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 such as substance abuse or mental health problems. Fewer earn a GED. And only a minuscule 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 ends of their sentences. According to DOC’s own statistics, the overall recidivism rate for nonprofits is 18 percent, significantly lower than the 30-percent percent rate of DOC-operated programs. The difference is that 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 be 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.