Beyond Sheriff Joe’s Tactics: Looking at Prison Reform in Florida With Fresh Eyes
FlaglerLive | March 14, 2013
Milissa Holland Live is on the air today, Friday, between 10 and 11 a.m. on WNZF 1550 AM, discussing the topic below. To ask questions or dial into the show, reach Holland by email here, on Facebook or on Twitter. While she’s on the air, call her at 386/206-WNZF (or 206-9693).
Lawmakers have filled the halls of the Capitol in Tallahassee as the legislative session began last week. Most of the decisions have already been made as hundreds of proposed bills have gone through the committee process already.
One issue is of particular significance for the state: prison reform. It’s been a bit under the radar because of recent stories suggesting that overcrowding is no longer a problem. However without a bold and serious conversation about criminal justice reform the system will not be able to sustain itself and continue to crowd out critical state services such as education, human service needs and environmental protection. Many potential reform ideas are on the table. The specific mix of reform and efficiencies must be decided in the Capitol.
Florida has long had a reputation for locking up more people than other states. Between 1970 and 2009, while Florida experienced a 2.7-fold rate of population growth, its prison population grew by 11.4. Florida’s incarceration rate is 26 percent higher than the national average. In 1988 we were imprisoning close to 111,000 people in state prisons at a cost of $300 to $400 million a year. In 2011 we had 110,000 people in those prisons at a cost of $2.2 billion. Does anyone truly believe we’re any safer today than we were in 1988? What is causing skyrocketing prison expenditures? The entire system needs a top to bottom overhaul.
Many believe that the key to changing the conversation is justice reform. The current system leads to too many non-violent individuals being incarcerated, too many prisons needing to be built at astounding public cost, too many young people moving from the juvenile justice system into the adult justice system and too many ex-offenders going back to prison. While behind bars, they received little or no job training, mental health and substance abuse treatment nor the necessary life-skills to legitimately re-enter society.
Other states have demonstrated that bipartisan criminal justice reform can reduce the prison population, cut spending and maintain public safety. For example, last year in Ohio, a Republican-majority legislature passed a measure that is projected to save the state $1 billion over the next four years by – among other things – increasing the amount of time a prisoner can earn towards early release, eliminating the crack-cocaine sentencing disparity (people arrested on crack-related charges have typically faced sentences harsher than people arrested on cocaine-related charges, even though crack and cocaine are similar substances), typically , removing mandatory minimum sentences for certain low-level drug offenses, and expanding the use of diversion programs for low-level drug offenders.
Although public safety is paramount to the health and well-being of Florida’s citizens, we must ask if all that tax money is worth it. Maybe not. It’s true that Florida incarcerates many people, but it also releases them back into society—and then locks them up again. About one in three inmates return to a Florida prison within three years of release. (The figure is higher if you include county jails, federal prisons, and prisons in other states.)
After five years, the return rate jumps to 65 percent. Decades of tough-on-crime laws have nurtured a large population of hard-core felons, and the Department of Corrections’ recidivism rate carries an astronomical price tag for tax payers. Too many prisoners are locked up for nonviolent crimes or for technical violations of probation. Too little money is spent teaching life skills to inmates so they can be productive citizens after they leave prison.
Most of the inmates in Florida’s prisons are going to be getting out. If they’re not employable, they’re going to commit more crimes, and there will be more victims. If we don’t change this vicious circle, we’re just going to be incarcerating more people and building more prisons. Equally important is a more enlightened policy on juvenile justice that diverts teenagers from detention centers that are a breeding ground for habitual criminal behavior.
This week on Milissa Holland Live we will be discussing the different ideas being debated in Tallahassee on prison reform. What are some of your thoughts on this issue? Should we model our system similar to Sherriff Joe Arpaio in Arizona? He recently told a television station there that there’ll be no such thing as a free lunch, or free breakfasts or dinner either for inmates. The controversial Arizona lawman announced that beginning this month Maricopa County inmates would be charged $1 for their meals. His bold tactics have certainly gotten him reelected several times and he has not backed down from the tons of lawsuits that have been filed against him and his facility. But is that our only solution?
What happens when there is no longer a Sherriff Joe in Arizona? Either way we must take a much closer look at those who are currently incarcerated in our system and what we can do to prevent them from getting jailed in the first place. Then we must address what drives the cost up once they are housed in there.
Milissa Holland, a Flagler County commissioner from 2006 to 2012, is host of Milissa Holland Live on WNZF 1550 AM, Fridays at 10 a.m. Her column will appear here every Wednesday. Reach her by email here, on Facebook or on Twitter. While she’s on the air Friday morning between 10 and 11, call her at 386/206-WNZF (or 206-9693).