Sunday, January 4, 2009

Jim McDonough: Cut costs and still stay safe

Jim McDonough
My View

Florida's leaders can and should reduce prison costs and crime. Both outcomes can be achieved simultaneously, and now is the time to act. To do so would take some thoughtfulness and a little political courage; mostly it would take leadership, especially from the Legislature.

Huge cost savings can be realized by not building several of the almost 20 new prisons now projected as "necessary." With construction costs at $100 million a copy and operating costs at $26 million for each one every year thereafter (for perpetuity, if we keep going as we are now), the financial drain is staggering, pulling money from other essential and productive programs the state will have to cut in order to pay the incarceration bill.

So how can we not build prisons and keep the state safer? The quick answer is to cut the recidivism rate (now at one-third within three years and progressively worse thereafter). Lower recidivism means less crime, and it is predictable if we put some effort into substance-abuse treatment (lowers recidivism by more than 10 percent), education (3-percent to 4-percent decrease per year of education level increase) and job training (5-percent decrease). These are solid data, consistent over many years. Also promising are faith-based programs, although the data here are still being collected for longitudinal verification. Banking on these relatively low-cost programs calls for some up-front investments, but the argument that we cannot afford it this particular year is nothing but backward logic. Real construction costs will begin this year (it takes five years to build a prison); the modicum invested now in the programs above immediately saves large costs.

Also immediately effective would be greater use of work-release centers. A program that currently places 3,000 inmates within 14 months of their release to unsecured barracks in communities where they go to work like everybody else, turn their pay over to corrections officials (who set it aside for them) and have local sponsors (usually family members), it has established a long-term record of low criminal incidence (any infractions are met with quick return to prison) and high employment rates. Another 3,000 inmates are qualified for the program but must await an open space. Finding room, perhaps by relaxing the requirement to sleep at the center after a few months of proven behavior (all other restrictions would remain in place, plus assignment to a probation officer), could bring down the construction bill by two prisons (or $200 million). Public safety is improved as inmates assimilate back into society with supervision and a job, instead of walking out the prison gate "cold turkey," unemployed and untreated for their long-term addictions (which do not go away by themselves, regardless of the length of imprisonment).

There are other low-cost ways to defer immediate costs. Selective restoration of gain time (a reward system to encourage good behavior within prison) would save the need for at least one more prison in the short term and perhaps as many as two. So too would the creation of re-entry courts that enable inmates with addictive and mental health problems nearing release to be placed under supervision of a judge while undergoing community reintegration with the necessary (and mandatory) assistance. This is an idea whose time has come — just as drug courts (Florida has more than 110) have proven enormously cost-effective in reducing crime and addiction while avoiding incarceration costs. Conversely, cutting probation officers to save a few dollars in salary budget makes no sense, yet this has been the recourse to an unimaginative appropriations record.

Continuing as we have in recent years makes no sense. Other states have figured this out and are taking proactive steps, with no signs of increases in crime. Florida, once a leader in the field of criminal justice, should be out in front once again. All we seem to lack is political courage, much of it in the unspoken fear of being seen as "soft on crime."

None of the above is "soft on crime." It is hard analysis of what works and what does not. If inmate re-entry rates were seen as the compounded interest they are to prison costs, we would realize that we will soon be bankrupt at the pace we are going. Not to rethink our approach, measure the risks and hedge against uncertainty is pure foolishness. In every crisis lies opportunity. The time for leadership is now.

Additional Facts

Jim McDonough is former drug czar of the state of Florida and former director of the Department of Corrections. Contact him at

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