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March 31, 2009 -- Herald-Tribune (FL)

Editorial: Formula For Failure

Overhaul Laws And Rules That Drive Up Justice System's Costs

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Florida's recession-driven budget crisis provides little time for legislators to think about transforming criminal-sentencing laws and prison policies.

But the state's dire straits provide a lot of incentives for overhauling statutes and rules that drive up the costs of the justice system -- and, in many cases, don't promote public safety.

As Todd Ruger reported in Monday's Herald-Tribune, proposed reductions in the current fiscal year's budget may require state prosecutors and public defenders to place their staffs on temporary, unpaid leaves. Furloughs would be preferable to staff layoffs, but add them to cuts in the budgets for courts, probation officers and prisons, and Florida has a formula for failure.

More cases will be delayed, more victims will be denied justice, more innocent people will fill local jails and more convicted inmates will be released from state prisons -- before their sentences expire -- without adequate supervision.

Something Has To Give

Unless the Legislature and Gov. Charlie Crist are willing to solve this budget equation by raising revenues through taxes, something has got to give. Under the status quo, Florida simply can't afford to maintain its mandatory-minimum sentencing laws, its death penalty statutes and its mandate that state prisoners serve 85 percent of their sentences -- at least not without violating constitutional rights, endangering corrections personnel, ending rehabilitation programs and releasing inmates who are likely to return to both crime and prison. All of these results will have high costs to society and the system that is already in crisis.

The law that requires inmates to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences was warranted when it passed in 1995. Floridians had lost confidence in the system because inmates in state prisons were serving less than 60 percent of their sentences in the early 1990s; a decade later, convicted criminals were serving 86 percent.

Legislators funded a prison-building boom but, combined with rising operational costs, it was unsustainable -- especially when the economy went bust. Walt McNeil, secretary of the Department of Corrections, recently told the Legislature that proposed budget reductions in the coming months would force him to quickly release 12,000 prisoners before their sentences expired. (That's about four times the number of inmates the state releases in a typical month.)

Reinstate Supervised Parole

Since Florida unwisely eliminated supervised parole for most inmates in 1994 and funds for probation officers have been slashed, the DOC would make such a substantial release of prisoners without the benefits of adequate oversight. Nearly one-third of all former inmates are incarcerated within three years of their release; imagine the recidivism rates if wholesale discharges are necessary. The reinstatement of parole would cost money but, if done properly, would enable prison officials to release from overcrowded facilities the inmates least likely to pose risks; a parole system would also provide the monitoring that is lacking in the current system.

The pressures on the state prison system will increase even more unless the Legislature funds existing and expanded locally operated mental health courts, drug courts and pretrial diversion programs that can help keep thousands of Floridians out of the state's crowded prisons. These programs have the added benefits of helping people put their own lives back together.

Unfortunately, a bill to fund such programs, filed by Republican Sen. Mike Fasano of New Port Richey, didn't even gain a sponsor in the House of Representatives.

At Least Be Honest

If the Legislature and governor -- and the public -- aren't willing to spend money on programs that save money and reduce public-safety risks, then they should be honest with Floridians.

The state can't afford the expensive pursuit of capital punishment, mandatory-sentencing laws that emphasize incarceration and other policies that have grown Florida's prison population to more than 100,000 and crowded county jails beyond capacity -- all the while violent crime rates remain high.

A truthful confession like that would be one of the few positive results of this painful recession.

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