TALLAHASSEE -- Facing a bad economy that will require lawmakers to cut $1 billion or more from the state budget in a special session next month, Gov. Charlie Crist and the Legislature are looking for significant ways to reduce spending.
James McDonough has a plan to do just that. But the political consequences may be more than Crist and the Legislature are prepared to deal with.
McDonough, who heads Florida's Department of Corrections, wants to reduce hard time for thousands of the state's inmates.
Moving inmates from prisons to work release, substance abuse and education programs, McDonough said, will save millions of dollars and improve public safety by helping convicts make successful transitions from life behind bars.
The plan would reduce DOC spending by 10 percent -- more than double the cut Crist asked state agencies to prepare to make -- and would mark a major change after years of "tough on crime" policies that have doubled the number of Florida inmates since 1990.
"Let's put them in the sorts of institutions that will better prepare them for their return in a few months," McDonough said this week. "This probably increases public safety because it takes that next cohort of potential work-release inmates and moves them into that process sooner, which gives them a chance to integrate."
McDonough's proposals require approval from lawmakers and Crist, who was dubbed "Chain Gang Charlie" in the 1990s.
As a state senator, Crist sponsored the law that requires inmates to serve 85 percent of their sentence, as well as an effort to return inmates to roadside work crews.
Crist said Friday that "it's not my predisposition" to consider moving inmates out of prison, but said he respects McDonough's "excellent judgment" that those released would pose little threat to the public.
"I would have to see who the offenders were, what they committed, who potentially would be eligible for something like this," Crist said.
Sen. Victor Crist, no relation to the governor, is chairman of the Senate's criminal justice appropriations committee. He said he was not yet familiar with McDonough's plan, but added that the concept might face a tough hearing.
"That is something, early release, that wouldn't sit well with me or with the governor," said Sen. Crist, R-Tampa, not ruling out any plan. "The thing we need to do is get up there and take a look at everything on the table."
But McDonough said that even if there were not a budget crisis, he would still recommend the ideas.
"To some degree the times opened up an opportunity to publicly project these ideas," he said. "I think they're good ideas. I stand by them."
McDonough said the worst option to cut 10 percent -- or more than $250 million -- from DOC's budget is to do nothing and allow prisons to become so overcrowded that courts order inmates released. McDonough said that is not imminent.
He is more enthusiastic about two other options.
One is to release up to 3,000 prisoners who are near the end of their sentence and already working in public while staying in DOC-operated facilities at night. Their spots would be filled with prison inmates on waiting lists for work release.
"You would be amazed how they permeate the society of Florida," McDonough said of work release inmates. "You'd be amazed at how many of your waiters, your busboys, your cooks are actually guys from the work release center three miles away."
Those released from the centers would still be subject to drug testing, garnished wages and other oversight from DOC.
The other option affects so-called "year and a day" inmates. To avoid putting offenders in crowded county jails, many local officials ask for a sentence of 366 days, the threshold that moves an offender into state prison.
"I do not fault local communities or municipalities from trying to do cost displacement," McDonough said of the practice, adding that at least 3,600 inmates have "year and a day" sentences.
McDonough suggests putting some of those offenders into halfway houses or substance abuse treatment centers instead of prisons. He says that would save money and allow for a better transition into society.
He added that these prisoners, since some of their sentence has been served in county jails or processing, rarely spend more than a few months in prison.
"It does not do society a whole lot of good because they're lingering in almost transient status until they get right back out on the street as opposed to truly serving the sentence," McDonough said.
McDonough took over the agency in early 2006 after James Crosby resigned amidst investigations that led to his federal prison sentence for taking kickbacks. McDonough is a former Army officer and West Point boxing champion who served in Vietnam and Bosnia. He earned a number of military honors, including a Purple Heart and three Bronze Stars.
McDonough has pushed for a heavier emphasis on using vocational, education and mental health treatment to prepare prisoners for release and reduce the number of returning prisoners.
Currently one-third of inmates released by the DOC return within three years. He said reducing rehabilitation programs "looks like an easy cut" for lawmakers, "but it's the last thing you want to cut."
Florida's prisons have doubled in size since 1990, due to population growth and tougher laws.
McDonough said the corresponding drop in crime can be attributed to the prison boom, but cautions that the benefits may be diminishing.
The state needs to build more than one prison a year to keep up with the growth.
"For a while it brought crime down, but now we see a rise, and our costs are astronomical," he said.
The governor said the connection between crime and prison rates is one the public supports.
Asked if he supported the general idea of letting offenders out of prison, Crist was clear.
"Probably not much," he said. "I don't think so."
McDonough acknowledges a "troublesome truth" with his plans.
"If just one of these people commits a heinous crime, the allegation would be made that we let a monster out," he said.
But McDonough said he is confident the moves would help the budget and the public.
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