The prison pipeline


Published: Saturday, September 1, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, August 31, 2007 at 11:12 p.m.

America has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, so it was only a matter of time before prison inmates became interstate commerce commodities.

The New York Times reported last month that Hawaii is renting prison space in Minnesota, Oklahoma and Arizona, and California is shipping inmates to Mississippi.

"They find that their prison populations are at or beyond capacity and they have to relieve that capacity," Tony Grand, president of the Corrections Corporation of America, told The Times.

With an inmate population approaching 90,000, Florida has its own capacity problems, with a projected need for more than $1 billion worth of new cell space over the next five years. But Florida is also facing a $1.1 billion revenue shortfall this year, and a more than $2 billion shortfall the year after. And lawmakers are looking to cut, not increase, spending.

All of which puts Gov. Charlie Crist and members of the Legislature in a quandary. For years the politicians have been passing ever tougher "tough of crime" laws, and for years prisons have been filling up accordingly. Now the bill is coming due.

Faced with a $220 million cut in his budget, Corrections Secretary James McDonough has proposed early release for more than 3,000 inmates. They would be low-risk, nonviolent prisoners who are already near the end of their sentences and who have records of good behavior.

"When you're talking about cutting $220 million from a single agency, that's major," McDonough told reporters this week. "You can never get there by taking a nickel here and a dime there. You have to make big changes. So the only challenge is, how do you make big changes and keep the public safe? And I think we've hit upon a couple of ways we could do that."

The political rhetoric in Tallahassee has long been "lock 'em up." But the fiscal reality is that as a society we have depended too much on expensive incarceration and too little on long-range education and rehabilitation strategies to protect the public safety.

Florida shouldn't wait until it has to export inmates to cope with the pressures and costs of its bulging criminal justice system. Better a smart, targeted early release program to begin to ease the pressure.

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