Brent Batten: TaxWatch encourages prison break in Florida

BRENT BATTEN

As you would expect from a group named Florida TaxWatch, its list of ways to save the state $4 billion in the next year is filled with rock-ribbed conservative ideas like reducing Medicaid fraud, increasing state employees’ contributions to their retirement plans and _ lightening up on criminals?

Dominic Calabro, president of Florida TaxWatch and promoter-in-chief of the 200-page report outlining 125 cost-saving measures recommended by a TaxWatch task force, says it’s time for a major change in the way Florida dispenses criminal justice.

He was in Naples last week explaining the report, compiled in advance of the upcoming session of the Legislature by a 40-person committee with members as diverse as gubernatorial candidates Alex Sink, Bill McCollum and Rick Scott.

Some ideas, like having state employees contribute more to their benefit plans, are already getting traction. Others, transitioning to a four-day work week for state employees, for example, are bound to raise eyebrows.

But it is in the area of criminal justice that the report departs furthest from accepted practice.

Over the past 30 years Florida has adopted a set of tough sentencing rules in an effort to crack down on crime. In 1984, sentencing guidelines took away much of a judge’s discretion in handing out sentences. In 1996, a rule requiring inmates to serve 85 percent of their sentences was implemented. In 1999, the 10-20-Life law mandating long prison sentences for crimes involving guns was passed.

During that time, the state’s inmate population has grown rapidly, outpacing the population growth in the state. There were 33,681 inmates in state prison in 1988. As of last September the number stood at 102,440, according to the TaxWatch report. Over the same period, the annual corrections budget grew from $502 million to $2.4 billion.

Crime has gone down as the inmate population has risen, but the TaxWatch report cautions against using that as proof that the get-tough policies actually worked. “It is tempting to credit the decline in crime to the increase in the rate of incarceration,” the report states. “Some have tried hard to make such a case but research shows that while some decrease in crime is attributable to incarcerating dangerous criminals, after a point, increased rates of incarceration offer diminishing returns and a negative cost-to-benefits ratio.”

In other words, Calabro says, “We appeared tough on crime but we weren’t really.”

People who should be in drug or alcohol treatment or under house arrest are in jail instead.

“We’re putting people behind bars willy-nilly,” Calabro said. “And we’re putting non-violent and violent offenders in the same cell. Our prisons became crime colleges.”

From 1997 to 2007, the nation’s incarceration rate went up 14 percent while the crime rate went down 24 percent. But in three states, Maryland, New Jersey and New York, where incarceration rates fell, crimes rates fell even more than the national average.

Texas, with a reputation as being tough on crime, reduced the number of people in its prisons in 2009, part of what Calabro sees as a trend toward stemming the tide of growing prison populations. “This is not a left-wing, liberal thing,” he said.

The report cites four main drivers of prison population growth: measures eliminating parole and lengthening sentences; widespread use of very short prison sentences in lieu of county jail time, probation or electronic monitoring; prison time for technical violations of probation; and recidivism _ people returning to prison for new violations.

The TaxWatch report makes 24 recommendations to reform the justice system, reduce inmate population and therefore costs. First is creation of a commission to do a top-to-bottom review of the system. Such a body was created in 2000. Members were appointed but it never met. It is set to phase out of existence in July.

Other suggestions include requiring written justification for prison sentences given those who score low in the sentencing guideline process and aligning Florida’s marijuana and cocaine possession laws with those of Texas and other similar states, making possession of small amounts of the drugs misdemeanors.

Calabro knows getting some of the changes enacted won’t be easy. But TaxWatch believes the justice system recommendations could save the state almost $400 million a year.

“It’s a paradigm shift,” he said. “It’s smart justice.”

Connect with Brent Batten at naplesnews.com/staff/brent_batten

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