Guest commentary: Florida needs to revisit sentencing law before opening new prisons

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By Dominic M. Calabro and Kenneth Bell

Tallahassee

For Florida TaxWatch

Crime rates in Florida are at historically low levels, yet the Florida Department of Corrections wants to reopen up to nine correctional facilities that were closed just last year.

Recently the state Criminal Justice Estimating Conference projected an increase of nearly 2,000 prisoners in Florida by next year, even as crime rates continue to decline. Such an increase will cost Florida’s tax payers millions of dollars.

If crime rates are down, why are our state officials projecting such a large increase of prisoners? The answer lies in mandatory sentencing for one of the largest inmate populations in Florida nonviolent drug offenders.

Florida law requires judges to send nonviolent drug offenders straight to prison for a mandatory minimum sentence. Granted, illegal drug usage violates state law, and those who break the law should be punished. But, are Florida prisons the smartest place to send these offenders? What “lessons” do we teach these offenders?

Prisons are very expensive “crime colleges” where nonviolent drug offenders are taught how to become better criminals and do not receive needed drug treatment.

Once an inmate is released from prison, there is a 26.7 percent chance that he will recidivate, or return to prison, within three years. If Florida can prevent these nonviolent offenders from entering the prison system in the first place, the state would save millions of dollars.

Each prisoner costs Florida taxpayers nearly $18,000 to incarcerate, In a year when the governor has requested agencies slash their budgets by $100 million, DOC has requested an additional $124 million for the prison system in FY 2014-15. The savings realized from the prison system reforms and closures of 2012 will be lost if the Legislature agrees to open more prison facilities.

Money that Florida saved from closing those prisons went to fund critical services, such as public school and teacher salaries, higher education, senior services, core functions of government and investments in economic development. Should these prisons reopen, those funds will be diverted back to corrections.

Florida TaxWatch focuses on improving the state’s criminal justice system, making Florida communities safer and reducing overall criminal justice spending through the TaxWatch Center for Smart Justice. The center’s research was a driving force for the criminal justice reforms that began in 2010, and its analysis calls for continued reform to a system that further indoctrinates prisoners into a life of crime and unnecessarily costs Florida taxpayers tens of millions of dollars.

Reopening closed prisons when Florida has a declining crime rate is the wrong direction for Florida. Florida’s prison system already ranks among the largest in the nation. Instead of increasing this “leadership” in incarceration, we should build on the reforms from 2012 and reduce our prison population. Florida can look to states like Texas and New York, which are saving millions of tax dollars by reducing inmate populations and closing state prisons. And, they are doing so without increasing their crime rates!

Sounds like smart justice.

To effectively control state prison costs, Florida must address its sentencing requirements and enact other smart justice reforms that TaxWatch has continuously recommended. It’s not too late for the Florida Legislature to take the necessary steps.

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