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Beyond Sheriff Joe’s Tactics: Looking at Prison Reform in Florida With Fresh Eyes

| March 14, 2013

Detail of a mural caricature of Joe Arpaio, the controversial sheriff of  Maricopa County in Arizona, on whose jail tactics the eyes of the nation have been glued for years. (Tom Check)

Detail of a mural caricature of Joe Arpaio, the controversial sheriff of Maricopa County in Arizona, on whose jail tactics the eyes of the nation have been glued for years. (Tom Check)

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.

milissa-holland-sigOne 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).

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7 Responses for “Beyond Sheriff Joe’s Tactics: Looking at Prison Reform in Florida With Fresh Eyes”

  1. johnny taxpayer says:

    We first need to decide as a society what the purpose of our prison system is. Is it to punish? rehabilitate? or protect? Ms Holland correctly points out we’re paying a ridiculous amount of money each year for a prison system that appears to only be successful at one thing, ensuring inmates continue to come back. How much money are we spending every year to turn petty non-violent drug offenders into hardened “career” felons? How much money each year are we spending to incarcerate 60 year old house wives who didn’t confess fast enough to a paramedic that she may have hit a lady? Does anyone really feel “safer” with the likes Ms Fischer behind bars? No, of course not. But we’ll spend $100k plus incarcerating her and 100’s of others in similar situations and at the same time complain about prison overcrowding and how much we as taxpayers are spending on the criminal justice system.
    We need to give up on this pipe dream of rehabilitation and realize that our prison system can only really accomplish one thing, and that is to keep the really violent criminals out of our society. Anything short of violent criminal behavior needs to be dealt with outside the prison system, other wise we’ll just keep building jail cells and filling them faster than we can build them.

  2. James says:

    I don’t care what the cost is they belong in prison. I would rather see them there then on our streets.

  3. interesting says:

    Now with privitizing prisons, it’s. Just another business. It is horrible, that some FL. People are ignorant, blood hungry barbarians who can’t do the math or follow their Church teachings yet, hate anyone with a brain. Scary. Ignorance may be bliss but, IT IS STILL IGNORANCE!!

  4. Barney Bishop III says:

    The Florida Smart Justice Alliance, founded five years ago has been working diligently on the issue of “being tough on crime, but smart on justice” as cited by Rep. Darryl Rouson (D-St. Petersburg) who is the ranking Democrat on Criminal Justice Issues. But more importantly, key Repbulican leaders like Rep. Dennis Baxley, House Judiciary Committee Chair (R-Ocala) and Sen. Thad Altman (R-Melbourne) both senior conservatives in their respective chambers have become champions of recognizing that 87% of all inmates will be getting out of Florida prisons within the next five years. You are absolutely right, if they don’t have at least a GED, some vocational skills, an ID card and some treatment for their underlying issues of substance abuse and or mental health (if they have these issues!), then in all likelhood they are going to reoffend creating new crime victims and thus going back to prison. Each year over 32,000 inmates are relased and only 23% are reeiving services that will help them to be successful so that they do not recidivate. And each year over 33,000 new felons are sent to prison of which 14,000 – 43% – are reoffenders. This cycle of the revolving door can and should be stopped. By using evidence-based practices that have proven successful, we can lower the recidivism rate, enhance public safety – and save precious tax dollars. Please go to our website at and check out our effots.

  5. Sally says:

    We need to recognize that the prison system in Florida and many other states is PRIVATELY run for SERIOUS profit. I think we need to “follow the money” and look at the connections between the legislators in Tallahassee and those for profit companies. “Reform” is unlikely if it gets in the way of the flow of $$$ both to these companies and from them to our politicians!

    Do some research about this – here’s just one site – keep looking and you;ll find lots more!

  6. Surt says:

    The judicial system as with the US government is FALLING APART. America has waited to long and has become to “de-balled” in its ability to save itself. The prison system will continue to get worse and we will see more riots and escapes as the internal corruption continues. The WAR of the HAVES and the HAVE NOTS is growing everyday. As the old generation dies off, the younger narcissist , self centered, socialist society grows larger…..Prepare !!!!

  7. Linda says:

    I think this State should seriously look at Sheriff Joe’s “tactics.” as you refer to them. I lived in Arizona for 18 years so have first-hand knowledge if him and his programs. He has been Sheriff for almost 25 years, think about, Maricopa County residents must feel he is doing something right!

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