Saturday, December 20, 2008

State prisons top 100,000 for first time

State prisons top 100,000 for first time

Official with Department of Corrections suggests new approach to sentencing

The Associated Press

Florida's prison population has topped 100,000 for the first time, making it only the third state in the nation to break into six digits after California and Texas.

The Department of Corrections said the number was reached Thursday. At 100,000, Florida's prison population roughly equals incarcerating one out of every four residents of Miami or almost all the citizens of Gainesville, home to the University of Florida.

California has approximately 170,000 prisoners and Texas has 140,000. Federal prisons combined house approximately 200,000 people.

Florida officials had been expecting the record-setting number for some time. Department of Corrections Secretary Walter McNeil talked about it with state lawmakers earlier in December and in a November interview called it a significant milestone.

In preparation for more prisoners, the state has purchased and begun setting up tents to house inmates, though none are currently being used. If all the tents were set up and filled, the state would be able to house another 1,200 people in them.

McNeil told lawmakers earlier this month that growth shows no signs of stopping. The state will need to build 19 new prisons in the next five years to house inmates if nothing is done to slow prison growth, he said. He estimated the cost at $1.9 billion, nearly equal to the department's current annual budget of approximately $2 billion.

McNeil hopes it doesn't come to that. He told lawmakers they should think about re-evaluating a ``lock-em-up'' approach to sentencing and focus on ensuring people released from prison don't return.

In 2005, it cost Florida more than $22,000 annually to house and feed each inmate, a little lower than the national average of just under $24,000. Texas spent $14,000 per prisoner per year and California $34,000, according to a report by Pew Charitable Trusts.

Nationwide 1.5 million people were in U.S. prisons in 2005, according to the most recent statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice.

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