February 20, 2009
Florida budget crunch puts the squeeze on prisons
A powerful business lobby wants Florida to deal with its exploding inmate population by releasing nonviolent offenders rather than building more prisons.
CAROL MARBIN MILLER, cmarbin@MiamiHerald.com
Florida's desire to build more prisons to house a growing inmate population is running into harsh economic realities, with the state predicting a need to build as many as 19 new prisons over the next five years even as state revenues shrink.
The problem has caught the attention of the state's most powerful business lobby, which is proposing what its leaders acknowledge is a radical idea: Stop building beds and instead release nonviolent inmates.
The group, Associated Industries of Florida, has released a position paper calling on lawmakers to halt the scheduled construction of three new prisons, each to house 1,300 inmates. Building the prisons is expected to cost a total of $300 million, plus an additional $81 million per year in operating costs.
The state Department of Corrections could forgo the prison construction by releasing about 3,900 inmates, the group recommends, saying the prisoners should be near the end of their term, and the release should not include any violent felons, pedophiles or sexual predators.
Barney T. Bishop, Associated Industries' president, acknowledges that some conservatives might find it "left-wing for a business association executive" to support the release of prison inmates. But "it doesn't make sense to me," he said, "to build those prisons."
Bishop is not alone in seeking unconventional solutions to the state's budget woes. State Sen. Victor D. Crist, the chairman of the Justice Appropriations Committee, said he, too, has been looking at ways to avoid a new prison-building binge with tax dollars that don't exist.
Crist, a Tampa Republican, supports the idea of halting prison construction. But he says Bishop's proposal to release some inmates will be a tough sell.
"Both AIF and the Florida Senate are on the same page with the idea of saving money by slowing down the construction of beds," Crist said. "But we're on two different pages on how to accomplish that."
Among other things, Crist proposes the state save about $24 million by contracting with either public or privately run prisons just outside Florida's borders to house 450 inmates.
"The correctional systems in surrounding states, especially private operators, have a significant amount of beds available," Crist said.
He also suggests the Department of Corrections could take over operation of secure facilities recently vacated by juvenile-justice administrators, who have been aggressively cutting costs as well. The facilities could house inmates nearing the end of their sentences who are in work-release programs.
State Rep. J.C. Planas, a Miami Republican and lawyer, said there's another speed bump on the way to releasing some inmates: The proposal would require revising state law, which requires that prisoners serve most of their sentences before release.
"From my perspective, everything is on the table," said Planas, who chairs the House Public Safety & Domestic Security Policy committee. "But [release] is a quasi-last resort."
Tom Blomberg, dean of Florida State University's criminology and criminal justice department, said he's not surprised that even conservative groups are looking at what used to be considered radical ideas for curbing the prison population.
As the economy worsens, "a lot of people feel this is the time to exploit the opportunity to get members of the public and policymakers to realize they must approach various alternatives," Blomberg said.
Bishop's proposal also recommends that released inmates receive services to help keep them from returning to prison.
DOC spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger said Corrections Secretary Walt McNeil agrees with Bishop's recommendation that inmates released from a state prison receive life skills training, basic education and substance abuse and mental-health care to improve their chances of staying out of prison. About one-third of inmates are back behind bars within three years.
Florida lawmakers may have $5 billion less for the budget that begins on July 1 than the current year's budget, Crist said. Citing tanking state revenues, McNeil announced last month that he had laid off 66 probation officers.
In recent weeks, Florida's prison population topped 100,000, though the census stood at 99,691 on Wednesday, Plessinger said.
The state Criminal Justice Estimating Conference, which forecasts prison admissions, estimates a state prison population of 106,086 by the end of the next budget year, June 2010, a slight drop from previous forecasts, records show. Based upon previous forecasts, prison administrators have said they would need to build 19 new prisons in the next five years, Plessinger said.
Why the constant need to build more beds? Bill Bales, an FSU criminology professor who is a former researcher and forecaster at DOC, said a handful of get-tough-on-crime laws, all passed within the past two decades, have kept inmates locked up longer.
Years ago, Bales said, prisoners could expect to serve a fraction of their sentences before being released on gain time or parole. But with mandatory minimum sentences and mandatory life terms for career criminals, "there is no release valve available, unlike in states that have parole."
"It is not a big surprise that the population has skyrocketed, especially the last couple of years," Bales said.