Monday, January 12, 2009

When Fear Dictates Public Policy

As Yankee Interloper mentioned in a previous post, Florida's prison population has passed 100,000, and unsurprisingly, the release of this information was accompanied by an outcry for more prisons. The more things change....

The January 4th edition of
The Tallahassee Democrat carried a column by Jim McDonough, former drug czar of the state of Florida and former director of the state's Department of Corrections (DOC). According to McDonough:

Huge cost savings can be realized by not building several of the almost 20 new prisons now projected as "necessary." With construction costs at $100 million a copy and operating costs at $26 million for each one every year thereafter (for perpetuity, if we keep going as we are now), the financial drain is staggering, pulling money from other essential and productive programs the state will have to cut in order to pay the incarceration bill.
Yes, you read that right. The state believes it's "necessary" to build almost 20 new prisons. Has the state even considered that perhaps, just perhaps, the present system is not working? Look at the numbers. We've gone from 81,974 inmates in June 2004, to 98,192 in June 2008, and over 100,000 today. For the fiscal year that began July 1, 2008, the DOC's total operating budget is approximately $2.3 billion. Just imagine what it will be with all of those new prisons.

So what can we do? For starters, McDonough suggests:
The quick answer is to cut the recidivism rate (now at one-third within three years and progressively worse thereafter). Lower recidivism means less crime, and it is predictable if we put some effort into substance-abuse treatment (lowers recidivism by more than 10 percent), education (3-percent to 4-percent decrease per year of education level increase) and job training (5-percent decrease). These are solid data, consistent over many years.
And further:
Also immediately effective would be greater use of work-release centers. A program that currently places 3,000 inmates within 14 months of their release to unsecured barracks in communities where they go to work like everybody else, turn their pay over to corrections officials (who set it aside for them) and have local sponsors (usually family members), it has established a long-term record of low criminal incidence (any infractions are met with quick return to prison) and high employment rates.
Finding a job is probably the single biggest barrier to a former inmate's reintegration into society. If more of the DOC's budget were put into this program, it would certainly translate into savings in the future.

Some other considerations:

  • The mentally ill -- In 2004, William Kanapaux wrote in an article in Psychiatric Times: "Prisons hold three times more people with mental illness than do psychiatric hospitals, and U.S. prisoners have rates of mental illness that are up to four times greater than rates for the general population." His information came from a report by Human Rights Watch, released in October 2003. No matter how progressive prison systems might aspire to be, they are in no way equipped to deal with mental illness on such a large scale. Should we substitute mental hospitals for one or more of those projected prisons?
  • Technical parole violations -- Individuals who violate their parole on a technicality continue to be re-incarcerated to complete the remainder of their original sentence. This is ridiculous. (Technical violations can include changing one's address without permission or missing an appointment with the Parole and Probation Officer.) Some of these people are on parole for the rest of their life, increasing the odds of a technical violation. Surely there is some alternative that makes more sense?
  • Education -- A 2000 study found that 75% of Florida's prison population scored at less than a 9th grade level in reading. I don't know if the requirement has since changed, but low reading scores used to prevent prisoners from entering DOC's vocational program. Is reducing the number of functionally illiterate inmates a priority?
  • Non-violent drug offenders -- This one regularly crops up during such discussions, but, in Florida at least, not much changes. Do non-violent drug offenders even belong in prison? Wouldn't it make sense to build more rehab/treatment facilities? Maybe then we wouldn't need quite so many new prisons.
I could also mention mandatory minimums and other sentencing fiascos, but I'll save that whole subject for another day. It's so frustrating to try to make sense of the way we currently just lock people up...then lock more people up. Now, with one in every hundred Americans behind bars, we've achieved a certain international notoriety that should at least make us reconsider what we're doing. I'm still waiting for the day when a politician who dares to question the workings of our criminal justice system can still win an election.

Here's a final word from Mr. McDonough:
Continuing as we have in recent years makes no sense. Other states have figured this out and are taking proactive steps, with no signs of increases in crime. Florida, once a leader in the field of criminal justice, should be out in front once again. All we seem to lack is political courage, much of it in the unspoken fear of being seen as "soft on crime."


1American4Justice said...

We have too many non-violent offenders with short sentences that could very well be on house arrest for $5-9 a day, vice the $60+ that we pay now. There is no way that the taxpayers can take on the burden of building more prisons, not even one let alone 20.But we have GEO Corp going to cash in on our mess, they are building a new one right next to Santa Rosa.

Toni said...

I totally agree. The whole system is such a rat's nest I hold little hope for its being substantially improved in my lifetime.

Btw, if you scroll to the bottom of our blog page, there's a subscribe link. You might try that. Let me know if it doesn't work.


1American4Justice said...

I see the RSS feed link, I am sure there will more following your blog now that it is there. If I can't find the Feed or Follow this Blog, I am at a loss, I am no computer person, I need buttons :o) BTW, I sent every single person on the Criminal and Educational Committees a long email about cutting our Education, I have grandchildren in school, I gave my opinions on Correctional Issues, and guess what, only 2 actually answered me. One blamed the Republicans, and one told me he hears it from his daughter a school teacher. So much for the taxpayer's voice in Tallahassee.