Pubdate: Sun, 12 Jul 2009
Source: Florida Today (Melbourne, FL)
Copyright: 2009 Florida Today
Bookmark: (Incarceration)
Bookmark: (Treatment)


Closely Examine Call to Shed Inmates As Possible Ploy to Hit Localities

Florida is in desperate financial straits and could readily use money 
spent on building new prisons for other priorities, such as education 
and health programs.

More than 100,000 convicts now sit in Sunshine State prisons, which 
are near capacity.

That's socking taxpayers with ballooning bills of more than $2 
billion a year, a huge drag on the state budget.

There's also no doubt that better treatment and job-training programs 
to help prisoners beat addictions and build a future are needed to 
reduce the costly cycle of re-offenders heading right back into a 
life of crime once released.

But new calls for reforms to save costs by putting fewer nonviolent 
offenders in Florida prisons are raising red flags with some local 
law enforcement officers around the state, including Brevard County 
Sheriff Jack Parker.

"I'm very concerned we're heading down a very bad path," says Parker, 
who points to rising crime rates after similar inmate release 
initiatives in the 1980s as a cautionary tale for state leaders today.

One new strategy to trim prison populations approved by the 
Legislature and signed by Gov. Charlie Crist this year says that 
low-level felony offenders who score at or below a Department of 
Corrections sentence-point threshold of 22 can't go to prison.

Instead, they could serve time in county lockups or face sanctions or 
community supervision. Judges can also send those with more serious 
criminal records -- up to 54 sentence points -- elsewhere instead of 
ordering them to prison.

More Jail Overcrowding

The new law could add to overcrowding in local jails and be the start 
of moves to shift more prison costs to counties, Parker says.

A spokeswoman for State Sen. Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, 
counters the law merely says judges must use more discretion when 
sending low-level offenders to state prisons. But a broader push for 
a change in the prison system is coming from a group of influential 
officials and business leaders.

They include former Florida DOC Secretary James McDonough, former 
Florida Attorney General Robert Butterworth, and executives from the 
Florida Chamber Foundation, Florida Tax Watch and Associated 
Industries of Florida.

They've formed the Coalition for Smart Justice and sent an open 
letter calling on Crist and the Legislature to do this:

. Jump-start a Correctional Policy Advisor Council created by the 
2008 Legislature but never convened.

. Study what alternatives to incarceration for low-level offenders 
are effective in Florida and elsewhere.

. Support funding of education, substance abuse and mental health 
programs that treat inmates in the community and help them 
successfully re-enter society.

We agree those reforms, if well implemented, can help stem spiraling 
prison costs and reduce recidivism.

Brevard County's drug courts -- which steer first-time offenders into 
strictly regimented treatment programs -- are a successful example of 
front-end diversion that's cheaper and more effective than prison 
sentences for many.

Local Taxpayers Hit

But Parker rightly warns that other criminals, while nonviolent, such 
as con artists who scam the elderly out of their life savings, 
deserve every day of their prison sentence.

And that lurking behind the coalition's seemingly well-intended 
reforms could be an agenda to shove more of the burden for prison 
inmates on local communities and their taxpayers.

Crist and lawmakers should study the Smart Justice coalition's 
manifesto, but proceed with extreme caution.

They should demand specifics on how many inmates will be targeted, 
what criteria should be used to define a nonviolent offender, how 
much savings can realistically be achieved through diversion 
alternatives and how the state will fund them.

Public safety will suffer if "smart" reforms are just code words for 
tossing criminals back on the streets for cash-strapped counties like 
Brevard to handle.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Richard Lake