Saturday, April 19, 2008

Short-term savings, huge costs

By STEVE BOUSQUET, Tallahassee Bureau Chief

Published Friday, April 18, 2008 9:16 PM


The budget is the clearest statement of values and priorities the Florida Legislature makes each year.

Lawmakers get to decide how to spend your tax money. You get decide whether they value what you value.

In the budget proposed by the House of Representatives, two figures stand out.

The first is $418-million. That's how much money the House wants to spend next year to build more prison beds.

The second number is zero. That's how much money the House would spend next year to help inmates deal with drug and alcohol abuse.

Neither the Senate nor Gov. Charlie Crist agrees with the House (the Senate would spend $31-million for treatment; Crist sought $29-million more than that, which was ignored), so the House's choice is not likely to be sustained. It's one of many unresolved budget issues with two weeks left in the session.

Crist's office calculated that increasing substance abuse care by $29-million would lessen the need for $300-million in future prison construction, because fewer inmates would reoffend because of their addictions.

The state Department of Corrections says 10 percent of all inmates are locked up because of drug possession crimes. Most of them will be released at some point, still addicted or not.

In tough times like these, the Legislature will slash prenatal care for poor women, reduce care for the disabled and chronically sick, lay off child abuse investigators and deny state workers a token raise. But no matter how bad the economy gets, they always find hundreds of millions of dollars for more prison beds.

The Senate set aside $229-million for construction, but the House is much more serious about building beds, even in a year when hundreds of probation officers' jobs are on the chopping block.

The House's $418-million includes money for a new 2,000-bed private prison in Graceville, a 1,335-bed annex in Mayo, 1,335 beds in Suwannee County, 1,335 beds at Sumter Reception Center, 1,596 beds at other prisons and four work camps with 2,016 beds.

Florida has more than 94,000 people behind bars, and must abide by strict rules for prison bed space or run the risk of setting violent criminals free. That's an apocalyptic scenario for citizens who like to sleep at night, let alone politicians vowing to be "tough on crime" at election time.

What galls substance abuse experts, prison officials, Crist and some legislators is that the unwillingness to spend money on substance abuse treatment will accelerate the need for more beds in the years to come.

"When you cut these substance abuse programs, you are guaranteeing a bigger hit on the budget down the road," says Rep. Jack Seiler, D-Fort Lauderdale, who blames term limits for what he views as a shortsighted House outlook on the issue. "The Senate thinks more long term."

Mark Fontaine of the Florida Alcohol and Drug Abuse Association has been walking the halls of the Capitol, pushing what he sees as a more compassionate Senate position.

"Invest wisely," Fontaine's one-page flyer reads.

Citing the state's own data, he says that eliminating substance abuse treatment will result in an estimated 1,500 more inmates flowing into the system at a cost of $166-million.

Ironically, House Speaker Marco Rubio's priorities include improving the lives of young black men who are disproportionately represented in the prison population. Asked about the inconsistency in shutting off abuse treatment, he said the program was important, but "the reality is that Florida has less money than it did a year ago. We're trying to balance that as best we can."

Steve Bousquet can be reached at or
(850) 224-7263.

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