As lawmakers grapple with the need to build nearly 20 new Florida prisons in the next five years on a cratering state budget, a powerful business lobby is proposing what they acknowledge is a radical idea: stop building beds and release nonviolent inmates instead.
The group, Associated Industries of Florida, has released a position paper calling on lawmakers to halt the scheduled construction of three new prisons, each with the ability to house 1,300 inmates. Building the prisons is expected to cost $300 million, plus an additional $81 million per year in operating costs.
The Department of Corrections could forgo the prison construction by releasing about 3,900 inmates, the group recommends. The prisoners should be near the end of their term, and the release should not include any violent felons, pedophiles or sexual predators, the statement says.
Barney T. Bishop, Associated Industries' president, acknowledges that some conservatives might find it ''left wing for a business association executive'' to support the release of prison inmates. But ''it doesn't make sense to me,'' he said, ``to build those prisons.''
And Bishop may not be alone in seeking unconventional solutions to the state's budget woes. State Sen. Victor D. Crist, the powerful chairman of the Justice Appropriations Committee, said he, too, has been looking at ways to avoid a new prison-building binge with tax dollars that don't exist.
Crist, a Tampa Republican, supports the idea of halting prison construction. But, he says, Bishop's proposal to release some inmates will be a tough sell.
''Both AIF and the Florida Senate are on the same page with the idea of saving money by slowing down the construction of beds,'' Crist said. ``But we're on two different pages on how to accomplish that.''
Among other things, Crist proposes the state save about $24 million by contracting with either public or privately run prisons just outside Florida's borders to house 450 inmates. The prisons should be no more than 100 miles from the state and should only house inmates with no ties to Florida, such as recent migrants.
''The correctional systems in surrounding states, especially private operators, have a significant amount of beds available,'' Crist said.
Crist also suggests the Department of Corrections could take over operation of secure facilities recently vacated by juvenile justice administrators, who have been aggressively cutting costs as well. The facilities could house inmates nearing the end of their sentences who are in work-release programs.
State Rep. J.C. Planas, a Miami Republican and lawyer, said there's another speed bump on the way to releasing some inmates: The proposal would require revising state law, which requires that prisoners serve most of their sentences before release. `
''From my perspective, everything is on the table,'' said Planas, who chairs the Public Safety & Domestic Security Policy Committee. ''But that is a quasi-last resort,'' he said of the release proposal.
Bishop's proposal is emphatic that no ''violent felons, pedophiles or sexual predators'' be included in any early release and that the pool of potential releases be restricted to inmates nearing the end of their sentences.
''But to do so without providing these inmates with some services dooms many to recidivate and end up back in a prison at a substantially higher cost to the taxpayers, not mentioning the future victims,'' his position paper states.
Crist's response: ``That will include thieves, burglars and assaulters.''
``It would include a number of individuals who prey on society and drive up the cost to law enforcement back home, so that defeats the purpose. We'd just be shifting costs.''
DOC spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger said DOC Secretary Walt McNeil agrees with Bishop's recommendation that inmates released from a state prison receive life skills training, basic education and substance abuse and mental healthcare to improve their chances of staying out of prison. About one-third of inmates are back behind bars within three years.
Florida lawmakers may need to cut 19.5 percent, or $5 billion, from the current year's budget when they tackle a spending plan for budget year 2010, Crist said. Citing tanking state revenues, DOC Secretary Walter McNeil announced last month he had laid off 66 probation officers.
In recent weeks, Florida's prison population had topped 100,000, though the census stood at 99,691 on Wednesday, said Plessinger.
The Criminal Justice Estimating Conference, which forecasts prison admissions, estimates a state prison population of 106,086 by the end of the next budget year, a slight drop from prior forecasts, records show. Based upon prior forecasts, prison administrators said they would need to build 19 new prisons in the next five years, Plessinger said.
If you live in Florida, please contact the governor in support of the Associated Industries of Florida's proposal.
Contact information for Governor Crist:
To email visit the Governor's website: http://www.flgov.com/contact_form
Citizen Services Hotline: (850) 488-4441 * Executive Office of the Governor Switchboard: (850) 488-7146 [Office hours are 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Eastern Time] * Fax: (850) 487-0801 * For individuals with hearing loss or speech disability: 1-850-922-7795 (TTY) OR 711 (Florida Telecommunication Relay)
Office of Governor Charlie Crist
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