Plan to slash prison funds defies tough Fla. tradition


Published: Saturday, January 29, 2011 at 11:03 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 29, 2011 at 11:03 p.m.

TALLAHASSEE — Florida's get-tough policy on crime over the past few decades is set to collide with an austere budget and a conservative governor pledging to take bold steps to save money.

With 102,000 prisoners, Florida has the third-largest prison population in the country and some of the toughest sentencing practices in the U.S.

But most of those prisoners, poorly educated, lacking job training, and facing unresolved drug and alcohol problems and mental illness, will wind up back on the street — and soon, prison again.



Those circumstances have led to an explosion in the prison population and the annual $2.4 billion corrections budget. Over the last five years, the system has grown by 17,300 prisoners.

Now, in a dramatic shift in prison policy, state leaders looking to cover a budget gap of more than $4 billion may look to aggressively embrace private prisons, as well as an array of sentencing reforms, improved substance abuse and education programs, and other efforts to prepare prisoners to successfully return to their communities.

Gov. Rick Scott has promised to cut $1 billion from the corrections budget over the next seven years. His plan for achieving that goal will become clearer in the next few weeks as he presents his first budget to the Legislature.

But changes to decades of Florida prison policy will not come easily, running headlong into Florida's tradition as a "get-tough-on-crime" state. In fact, the state's penal code notes punishment is its "primary purpose."

That get-tough tradition has led to the elimination of parole for prisoners, the requirement that they serve 85 percent of their sentences, 10-20-life sentences for crimes involving guns, a "three strikes" law for repeat felons and judges' authority to send any felon to prison.

Some top lawmakers have said they would resist efforts to retreat from those standards.

"We want to be cautious," said Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, chairman of the Senate budget committee that oversees prison spending.

Troubled system

Edwin Buss, the new corrections secretary, will inherit a system in which nearly nine of every 10 prisoners will be released at some point.

And those prisoners represent a real threat to their communities, for several reasons:

They are poorly educated; more than half read below the sixth-grade level.

Most have few job skills and many have unresolved drug addiction and alcohol problems, reflecting the fact that the state only spends 1 percent of its $2.4 billion prison budget on substance abuse, education and vocational programs.

Many have mental health issues. Nearly one in five prisoners receives care for mental illnesses.

Most will serve at least 85 percent of their sentences. But once released, many will have little or no supervision.

Not surprisingly, one out of every three prisoners released is likely to return to state prison within the next three years.

Saving money

Fasano said he wants to make certain the state doesn't undermine its success in fighting crime.

"The crime rate is down in Florida and I think a lot of it has to do with going after those who commit crimes and those who are repeat offenders," he said.

But other leaders say it is time to at least re-examine some state policies.

Senate Criminal Justice Chairman Greg Evers, R-Baker, said he was willing to look at issues including the 85 percent requirement and the possibility of reviving some form of parole within the state.

Evers said his committee would consider a range of suggestions including proposals advanced by Florida TaxWatch, a business-oriented research group, and other think tanks that recommend Florida increase its efforts to rehabilitate prisoners.

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