By Joe Follick
Published: Sunday, March 22, 2009 at 1:00 a.m.
There are more than 100,000 inmates in Florida prisons and 25,000 more expected in the next five years. Now, lawmakers are considering plans to further cut the programs that promise the best chance for long-term savings -- specifically, education and substance abuse programs.
Already pruned in recent years, those programs are intended to prepare inmates for life after prison and prevent their return to crime.
The cuts have heightened concerns that Florida's tough-on-crime laws -- including a mandate that inmates spend 85 percent of their sentence behind bars -- have become too costly and ineffective.
Even the head of the state's prison system says so.
"If you can't read, if you don't have any employable skills, if you have a substance abuse problem and you've spent three years in prison and you come out and you still have those issues, what the heck are you going to do?" said Depart of Corrections Secretary Walt McNeil. "You're going to hit my mom or someone else's mom or somebody's child over the head breaking into someone's house. It is too costly to continue this uninformed way of trying to fight crime."
But efforts to provide alternatives to prison are finding little support in a Legislature where being called "soft on crime" is seen as a devastating insult.
Still, some try.
Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, is sponsoring a bill that would provide funding for mental health courts, pre-arrest diversion programs, crisis intervention police teams and other means to treat drug addicts and the mentally ill instead of putting them in jails and prisons.
"It's the moral thing to do, it's the humane thing to do," Fasano said. "And it will save money in the long run. Law enforcement supports this."
But Fasano admits his bill, which has yet to find a sponsor in the House, has little chance of passing this year.
In the past two decades, Florida's prison population has grown by nearly 50 percent. Late last year, Florida became the third state -- along with California and Texas -- to have more than 100,000 people in prison.
Nearly 30 percent of the state's inmates are serving time for drug violations.
Sen. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami, added that imprisoning mothers and fathers who wrote bad checks or were simply with someone during a drug arrest rips apart families and costs the state too much.
"It has a lot to do with the Republican Party trying to protect their tough-on-crime image and they don't understand that what they're doing is a mockery of justice," said Wilson. "Having 100,000 people in prison is nothing to be proud of. It's outrageous."
Wilson and other Democrats say they have a study showing that hundreds of millions of dollars could be saved by allowing early release of inmates who are first-time offenders with less than two years remaining in their sentence who have had no disciplinary problems in prison.
But Sen. Victor Crist, R-Temple Terrace, the chairman of the Senate criminal justice appropriations committee, said the 85 percent mandate is likely going to stay.
"I am confident that will not change, at least not in my lifetime," said Crist, who is no relation to Gov. Charlie Crist. "What we do have is an option to look at the front door and whether or not some of the sentencing" guidelines that were necessary 10 or 15 years ago are still necessary today.
McNeil withholds any personal opinions on whether allowing low-risk prisoners to leave before 85 percent of their sentence is complete would affect public safety. He said that his boss, Gov. Crist, has showed no sign of softening on that number.
"I can't gauge where that should be: 85, 90, 75. I don't know," said McNeil.
McNeil, a former Tallahassee police chief, said he remembers when officers would see murderers back on the street just a few years after they were sent to prison.
"I don't know where the pendulum needs to swing, but I don't want to see it swing back to where we're releasing persons who committed those crimes," said McNeil.
It costs taxpayers more than $19,000 annually to house one inmate. That is almost equal to the total annual costs for an in-state student at the University of Florida, including meals, housing, insurance and tuition. Of the nearly 40,000 prisoners that will be released this year from Florida prisons, more than one-third will return to prison and most will do so within a few years.
Without the funding to increase re-entry preparation for inmates, McNeil is relying on more than 10,000 volunteers statewide to teach inmates. He has created two facilities, Baker Correctional Institute in northwest Florida and Demilly C.I. in Polk City, that focus on inmates who will live in those areas by preparing them with work skills and intense education.
Fran Barber, the DOC's deputy assistant secretary of institutions, said the volunteer-based programs draw from retirees, teachers and programs with sheriff's offices and community colleges. The agency's goal is to reduce recidivism, the rate of prisoners that return, from nearly 33 percent to 20 percent.
"We cannot continue to sit back and wait for funding," she said. "If we had it, we could do it quicker. But it is too important to wait."
Some senators listening to McNeil's worst-case scenarios last week, including the early release of 12,000 prisoners, were visibly stunned at the ramifications of the cuts. They also heard other agency officials say that 15 percent cuts ordered for the rest of the year by Gov. Crist for all state agencies would mean the end of the state's tracking of sex offenders and the closing of youth detention centers, which would move teenagers farther away from families.
"It is incredulous that we are at this point," said Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa. "I've been wondering why I couldn't sleep at night and now I really know."
Joyner said Gov. Crist, who earned the nickname "Chain Gang Charlie" for his tough-on-crime views as a senator in the 1990s, "has got to say, 'Wait a minute. What I said about being Chain Gang Charlie 20 years ago won't fly today,'" Joyner said.
"We are not saying let everybody go free and forget about public safety," Joyner continued. "But I don't want to be a person that's part of the demise of this great state."