Growing by Leeaps and Bounds – The Ledger

Posted: June 14, 2010 in News and politics
Printed on page A6

[ FLORIDA PRISON POPULATION ]

Florida Prison Population: Growing by Leaps and Bounds

Published: Monday, May 17, 2010 at 12:01 a.m.

While most of state government is shrinking, or at least not growing, Florida’s prison system continues to grow by leaps and bounds. The tell-tale numbers are eye-catching.

In 1995, the entire state prison budget was $1.6 billion. This year, it is $2.4 billion.

In 1987, for every dollar spent on higher education in our state, 34 cents was spent on corrections. Today, that number is 66 cents.

There are more than 101,000 inmates locked up in Florida prisons – a 20 percent increase from just five years ago. And if the rate of growth continues, state analysts predict the prison population will hit 115,000 within five years, requiring nine new prisons at a cost of $862 million.

It is against this fiscal background – and forecasts of a potential $5 billion state budget deficit next year – that has a growing number of policy and fiscal watchdogs urging Florida lawmakers to rethink and rescind many of the state’s mandatory-minimum-sentence laws, which are among the harshest in the nation.

"It is time for us to rethink 30-year-old policies that may have served the state well in their time," states a new report from the respected Collins Center for Public Policy, a Miami-based think tank established by the Legislature to advise it on public policy issues.

‘IT CONFOUNDS COMMON SENSE’

"But their time has passed," the report states. "We know more now. Continuing to pour money into a bloated prison system in a time of fiscal austerity is not only unsustainable, it confounds common sense."

Like the Collins Center, the conservative, business-backed Florida TaxWatch and the respected Pew Center on the States also have homed in on Florida’s burgeoning prison population and budget, calling for reducing or eliminating mandatory-minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders and creating more sentencing alternatives such as drug courts, among other reforms.

The groups recognize that more people are serving longer sentences than any time in history. More than 41,000 of Florida’s inmates have no chance of parole, in large part because of these laws, and one in 10 is serving a life sentence.

When the first mandatory-minimum laws were passed in Florida in 1979, it was the height of Miami’s cocaine wars.

The intent was to make an unmistakable statement to hard-core criminals. But, over the years, too many nonviolent offenders have gotten snared by the inflexibility of mandatory-sentencing laws, especially low-level drug offenders, straining not only the public treasury, but the bounds of humanitarian justice.

REVOLVING DOOR

The laws are so hard-and-fast that they have weakened the authority and discretion of judges, supplanting it to prosecutors, who decide whether an accused criminal will be charged with a mandatory minimum offense or not.

Study after study in state after state, meanwhile, have shown that mandatory-minimum sentences do not to deter crime. Nor do parole or alternative-sentencing programs lead to increases in crime.

"Florida can’t afford it," said Barney Bishop, president and CEO of Associated Industries of Florida, which represents the businesses community, to The Gainesville Sun.

"We’re continuing to put more money into building new prisons, and the outcome is the same. It’s [creating] a revolving door, high recidivism and we’re not giving them [inmates] any new skills."

Bishop said the reform will likely take a four-year effort to put new ideas in place: "Take some criminal-justice dollars and put them on the front end of the system to divert people who don’t belong in prison. Prison should be for those who are a danger to themselves and a danger to society. A significant number of people we’re putting in prison are low-level druggies."

The argument for reform of Florida’s mandatory-minimum-sentencing laws is substantive. Too many Floridians are serving unnecessarily harsh sentences, often with no hope of freedom, and the cost has simply become unjustifiable.

It is time to rethink these archaic laws, and with the fiscal forecast Florida faces, no time is better than now.

This story appeared in print on page A6

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