Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Budget crunch can't stifle influx of prison inmates

By Steve Patterson,
The Times-Union

In the middle of Florida's multibillion-dollar state budget crunch, a glut of inmates is filling the prison system to its limits.

The Florida Department of Corrections is looking for $649 million to add buildings during the next budget year, starting in July.

But a Senate committee chairman says the state has to cut costs and gave the department until Thursday to trim 10 percent of the $3.2 billion budget Gov. Charlie Crist has proposed.

"If they don't show me where [to make cuts], I'm going to have to make my own," said Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa. The chairman of the Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Committee said that could mean scaling back construction despite a surge in prison admissions.

The senator, who is not related to the governor, said he wants to know whether extra bunks can be hung in cells that already house non-violent and geriatric inmates. He said the state also needs ways to cut the number of people entering prison.

With about 96,000 people behind bars, Florida's prisons were at 97.3 percent of capacity, a department spokeswoman, Jo Ellyn Rackleff, said this week. She said the department has plans to buy metal buildings that can be readied for inmates quickly and surplus military tents to house inmates.

The agency also expects to get some camps the Department of Juvenile Justice has shut down, Rackleff said.

There could be 99,000 inmates by the end of June, according to the Florida Criminal Justice Estimating Conference, a state panel that tracks prison trends.

Forecasts used by that panel envision more than 105,000 inmates by the middle of 2009 and 128,000 five years from now.

A non-profit group that studied prison systems across the country singled out Florida's as "a case study in growth" in a report finished last month.

The Pew Center on the States said only Oregon spent a larger share of its general revenue on incarceration and that other states cut their crime rates as much as Florida while keeping fewer people locked up.

One reason for Florida's inmate buildup is more felons are being sentenced to prison instead of county jail, according to Florida's estimating conference, which gathers information affecting state planning and budgets.

Laws requiring prison time for some kinds of criminals, such as the Anti-Murder Bill the governor championed last year to lock up probation violators with violent histories, also contributed.

Deciding exactly how many people to lock up is "a difficult balance," said Dominic Calabro, president of Florida TaxWatch, a group that tracks state fiscal habits.

"Our crime rate fell dramatically, and there's a certain amount of reckoning to be done for that," Calabro said. "But there are also a lot of folks in our prisons over moderate drug charges."

The Governor's Office has described the corrections budget as incorporating only "necessary prison construction," but the search for savings may lead to questions about where some inmates are housed.

Sen. Crist said he wants information about whether inmates with drug addictions could be housed someplace cheaper than traditional prisons. The governor has recommended a $29 million project to increase substance abuse treatment among inmates and people on probation.

The senator said the state also should look at whether more mental health services would cut the number of mentally ill inmates who are convicted and locked up repeatedly.

"If I can reduce the number of beds I've got to build tomorrow, I save money today," Crist said.,

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