Captive jobs

Published: Sunday, January 15, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 13, 2012 at 5:44 p.m.

Florida Democratic Party to Rick “Let’s get to work” Scott: Gotcha!

Democrats have seized on the news that Scott intends to close seven prisons, eliminating as many as 1,293 jobs.

Scott “continued to implement his extreme tea party agenda that has eliminated jobs and moved our state in the wrong direction,” state Democratic Party chair Rod Smith said. “... It is wrong to reward the governor’s political cronies with taxpayer-funded contracts to oversee Florida’s inmate population at the expense of hardworking Floridians.”

This in reference to a push — now tied up in court — to privatize Florida’s ... well, let’s just call it Florida’s “prison-industrial complex.”

And the Dems may have a point. If these closings really are part of the GOP’s latest privatization ploy, it is a sneaky and cynical move, indeed.

Still, even though this is an election year and the Ds and Rs are eager to bash each other as “job-killers,” responsible people in both parties really need to acknowledge the obvious: Incarceration as an economic development tool is a loser.

It is wasteful of human beings, it is wasteful of taxpayer dollars and it is not sustainable on anybody’s balance sheet.

Yes, it is true that over the decades, fueled by one “get tough on crime” minimum-mandatory sentencing law after another, the state’s prison population has gone nowhere but up.

We reached the 100,000 inmate mark a few years ago, ushering in the billion-dollar corrections budget threshold. That’s a billion dollars a year that doesn’t go to schools, colleges or health care.

And, yes, there has been lots of demand for new cell space, which has been a boon for employment in the rural counties, because that’s where the state likes to build prisons.

The thing is, “incarceration inflation” has been steadily rising even as crime rates have been steadily falling.

Now crime rates are at a 40-year low and, finally, prison admissions are starting to taper off as well.

“Florida leads the nation in incarceration rates and stringency in law and sentencing, making its criminal justice system the most punitive of the 50 states,” said a Collins Center for Public Policy study last year.

It cost taxpayers nearly $20,000 a year to house a prison inmate. And all those new prisons we’ve built? The state now carries a prison bonding debt of nearly $723 million, which will cost taxpayers more than $1 billion when you throw in debt service and interest.

The conclusion that Florida locks up too many people for too long and for too many offenses (drug possession being the leading incarceration escalator) is inescapable.

So while the Dems may get some useful election-year fodder out of calling Scott and the Republicans jobs-killers, the adults in the room, in both parties, understand full well that any serious approach to criminal justice reform is going to mean fewer prisons — public or private — not more.

In a year when Scott wants to take money out of health care so he can put it into schools, are the Democrats really going to fall on their swords in defense of prison cells?

Ron Cunningham is editorial page editor of The Sun.

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