Pubdate: Mon, 31 Dec 2007
Source: Pensacola News Journal (FL)
Copyright: 2007 The Pensacola News Journal
Author: Ronald Fraser
Note: Ronald Fraser, Ph.D., writes on public policy issues for the 
DKT Liberty Project, a Washington-based civil liberties organization.


Florida's prison system is like an out-of-control carousel. In 2005,
for example, 46,000 new inmates got onboard just as 42,000 parolees
stepped off and headed for home -- up from 9,400 in 1980.

Nowadays Florida towns and cities are struggling to cope with the
special services needed by this ever-growing number of new parolees
returning home each year.

America's lock-'em-up drug laws are keeping this merry-go-round
spinning faster and faster. Nationally, the portion of inmates leaving
state prisons after serving time for non-violent drug offenses has
shot up from 11 percent in 1985 to 37 percent in 2005.

Here is how this trend plays out in Florida:

Florida prisons held only 20,400 men and women in 1980. By 2006 that
number was 89,000.

Today Florida's incarceration rate -- the number of state prisoners per
100,000 population -- is 492. In 1980 it was only 208.

While the enforcement of federal and state drug laws has not lowered
the availability or use of illegal drugs, those laws have done more
harm than good for drug users, taxpayers and local

Instead of dealing with drug abuse as a health issue in education and
treatment centers, drug laws have sent thousands of otherwise
law-abiding citizens to prison.

But prison time can backfire.

Life behind bars is an ideal environment for non-violent inmates to
become socially alienated and to learn new criminal skills. Upon their
release, many drug users are likely to pose a greater risk to society
than when they entered prison.

Florida's prison merry-go-round would stop turning if not for the
generous contribution of more than $1.4 billion each year from state

And nationally it costs much more to enforce drugs laws that don't do
what lawmakers say they were intended to do.

The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws in
Washington estimates that U.S. taxpayers are spending more than $1
billion a year just to lock up 33,600 state, and 10,700 federal,
marijuana offenders.

Most of these people were peaceful, productive citizens. They do not
belong behind bars.

Once their prison phase ends, parolees face an uphill struggle as they
try to put their lives back together. Trouble finding jobs and a place
to live are common problems and force many ex-convicts to seek help
from local agencies.

But instead of fixing the root cause of this problem, federal and
state officials are turning to churches and social service agencies to
salvage their failed policies. As one New York correctional officer
remarked recently, "Our dump-'em-on-the-street with $40 is not
working. We need help."

Faith-based service grants from Uncle Sam are already being used by
communities to cope with newly released inmates. The Council of State
Governments, the National Association of Counties and the Urban
Institute are all addressing reentry issues. And the push is on to get
United Way and Big Sister/Big Brother organizations involved.

Trouble is, these efforts address only a symptom of the problem, not
the problem itself.

What to do? About one-half of all U.S. inmates are non-violent
offenders. Would it not make a lot more sense to solve the returning
prisoner crisis by drastically cutting the number of non-violent
people cycled through Florida's prisons and sent back to their
hometowns every year?

Policy-makers in Tallahassee need to stop sending non-violent
offenders to prison and increase the use of non-prison punishments,
including treatment for drug abusers and support services for other
non-violent offenders.

This would drastically slow down Florida's prison merry-go-round, save
taxpayers a lot of money, and shrink by up to one-half the number of
ex-inmates headed back to local communities each year.
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake