Texas lawmaker offers advice on Florida’s burgeoning prison budget by Janet Zink

Posted: February 3, 2011 in News and politics

TALLAHASSEE – Both Gov. Rick Scott and legislative leaders have pledged to offset the state’s nearly $4 billion budget shortfall with cuts to the prison system.

With that in mind, Florida lawmakers heard testimony Monday from Texas state Rep. Jerry Madden, R-Plano, who sponsored prison reform legislation in his home state.

The overriding message: save money by keeping people out of prison with programs that address drug addiction, alcoholism and mental illness.

Madden said prisoners can largely be divided into three categories: those who will never return, those who are guaranteed to return, and those who won’t return if they are enrolled in the right programs. It’s the third category that gives you the most bang for your buck, he said.

“This is being tough on crime. It’s tougher for a drug guy to take drug treatment than to spend a year and a day in jail,” he said. “If someone’s a drug addict, break their habit.”

The goal, he said, is to keep people out of prison and not provide room, board and health care to people who are only a danger to society because of substance abuse or mental health problems.

“If he’s locked up in your prisons for that, why don’t you treat him? Particularly if he’s one of those guys that may or may not come back,” Madden said. “Don’t spend one cent on a person who’s always coming back, or the person who’s never coming back.”

Madden also suggested giving judges more leeway in sentencing guidelines, creating school programs to stop high-risk children from becoming criminals and changing penalties so minor parole violations and possession of small amounts of drugs don’t result in extensive time behind bars.

Madden was speaking at a joint meeting of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee and subcommittee on criminal and civil justice appropriations.

Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, and Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, asked if such measures prompt criticism of being soft on crime.

Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, said Florida lawmakers considered some of Madden’s suggestions in the past, but “it’s politically difficult to do.” Madden said that shouldn’t be the case.

After the meeting, Evers said to cut the prison budget, Florida may need to revisit sentencing rules, including requiring offenders to serve 85 percent of their sentences, a recommendation made by Scott’s transition team on prison reform.

Janet Zink can be reached at jzink@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

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