Original Voice

New Florida Coalition is Tasked With Reducing Both Prison Costs and
Crime Rates

By James McDonough, former Secretary, Florida Department of Corrections

As the number of incarcerated offenders in Florida continues to grow—fed by recidivism rates that remain exceedingly high—the strain on public funding to build even more prisons has become increasingly intolerable. At $100 million a pop to construct and another $24 to $40 million a year to operate, Florida’s prisons are already a tremendous fiscal drain.
In response, an unlikely partnership of former State Attorneys General, business leaders, a former Corrections Department head, the executive director of Florida’s largest law enforcement association, and the director of its foremost tax watchdog organization, have come together to form the Florida Coalition for Smart Justice. This organization is tasked with proposing ways to keep crime down, while reducing the endless round of new prison construction.

In an open letter to the Governor and leaders of the state legislature, the Coalition and other leading citizens have called for a review of criminal justice procedures with an eye toward policy reforms that would help increase public safety while lowering incarceration rates. Their central observation: With a five-year recidivism rate of 65 percent (in this case, defined as a return to prison or jail as a result of subsequent crimes), current policies are not serving to keep crime down beyond the actual time of incarceration.

Since approximately 90 percent of inmates will eventually get out of prison after completing their current terms, the result is a perpetuation of additional crime and an endlessly-growing outlay of public funds for prisons. Florida now has over 100,000 inmates in its prison system, with over 60 full-scale prisons and 80+ additional smaller incarceration facilities such as work camps, road camps, work centers, etc. Like compounding interest, the rate of return on these inmates is destined to break the bank of state revenues at some point in the not-so-distant future. To put the magnitude of this in perspective, over the last 25 years the incarceration rate per 100,000 of the state’s population has more than doubled. It costs $20,000 per year to house each inmate, and the Corrections Department’s budget is now over $2.5 billion—or approximately 10 percent of the state’s general fund.

Recognizing that some other states have been able to find ways to decrease prison populations while lowering crime rates, the Florida coalition suggests that small investments in supporting programs like substance abuse treatment, education, job skills training, faith-based efforts, and life management skills would help lower recidivism rates and slow down (and perhaps at some point even reverse) the rate of prison construction while at the same time lower crime rates. Hardly a soft-on-crime group, the Coalition for Smart Justice has attracted considerable attention in Florida with its strong advocacy for criminal justice reform.

The hard economic times seem to be helping this cause. Legislators who would normally prefer to be noticed for their “get-tough” stances have indicated that endless expenditures for yet more incarceration facilities yielding no return in crime reduction cannot continue to be perpetuated. In this year’s state legislative session, they approved the expansion of offender diversion to Drug Courts, anticipating at least a 7 to 1 return on that investment through prison cost avoidance. This fall, a planned symposium among leading state policy and criminal justice experts should help advance an even stronger slate for next year’s session. The Governor was quick to sign the expanded Drug Court bill this year, and he has indicated he is willing to listen to other ideas for reform, as long as public safety can be protected and improved. This is an outcome the Coalition feels confident it can deliver.

The central proposition is that criminals must be held accountable for their actions. The premise, however, is that given the tools to earn a living (such as job skills and education) and avoid bad decisions (such as substance abuse/mental health treatment, life-management skills, and faith-based foundation), far fewer ex-offenders will return to a life of crime. The data on such programs supports the finding that they lead to lower recidivism rates. All we need now is the political courage to act on what we know to be true.