Saturday, March 21, 2009

Inmate programs may get the axe

Lawmakers are considering cutting education and substance abuse programs for rehabilitating prisoners. Lawmakers are considering cutting education and substance abuse programs for rehabilitating prisoners.

By Joe Follick
Staff writer

Published: Saturday, March 21, 2009 at 6:30 a.m.

TALLAHASSEE - With more than 100,000 inmates in Florida prisons and 25,000 more expected in the next five years, lawmakers are considering plans to further cut the programs that promise the best chance for long-term savings - education and substance abuse programs.

Already pruned in recent years, those programs are designed to prepare inmates for life after prison and prevent their return to crime.

While Gov. Charlie Crist has proposed maintaining the programs, lawmakers are facing a $6 billion budget hole that demands deep cuts in all public services unless they decide to raise taxes.

Like all agencies, the Department of Corrections has produced a plan for a 15 percent budget cut. DOC secretary Walt McNeil told lawmakers that such a cut would result in closing prisons and releasing nearly 12,000 prisoners.

That is extremely unlikely to happen. But McNeil also said that smaller budget cuts might mean reductions in probation officers, substance abuse programs and education programs.

"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 McNeil.

But the debate over re-entry programs is only part of a growing debate over whether Florida's "tough on crime" laws, including a mandate that inmates spend 85 percent of their sentence behind bars, have become too costly and too cruel.

Sen. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami, said 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.

"I think 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 said.

Wilson and other Democrats are preparing a study that preliminarily shows 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, 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," he said.

But Crist added that it may be time to look at easing sentences on non-violent crimes and reducing the influx of prisoners.

"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," said Sen. Crist.

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