Saturday, March 20, 2010

Florida prison population rises as most states show declines, study finds

By Diana Moskovitz, The Miami Herald

7:51 AM EDT, March 17, 2010

More than half the states in the nation lowered their prison populations last year — but not Florida, where it continued to rise, according to a recent survey by the Pew Center on the States.

Nationally, 27 states saw their prison populations fall between Dec. 31, 2008, and Jan. 1, 2010, according to Prison Count 2010, released Wednesday. States with declines included New York, Mississippi and Texas.

But over the same period of time, Florida's state prison population rose 1.5 percent, or by slightly more than 1,500 inmates, the report said.

Pew pinned the problem squarely on Florida's leaders.

"In other states, like Texas and Kansas, leaders have reached across the political aisle and come to a consensus on solutions that can both protect public safety and cut corrections spending," said Adam Gelb, director of the Public Safety Performance Project at Pew Center on the States. "But that's not happening in Florida."

In response to the report, Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Walter McNeil released a statement that acknowledged the growing prison population, but pointed out that the growth was lower than the state projections.

"The prison population is still projected to grow in Florida but we are seeing the rate of that growth begin to slow down," the statement read.

Gelb said the fact that adding 1,500 prisoners was considered slower-than-expected growth showed how far Florida had to go.

As of Monday, Florida had a prison population of 101,517.

The report was compiled after Pew asked all 50 states a simple question: What is your prison population? Researchers got prison population numbers for the last day of 2008 from the national Bureau of Justice Statistics. Then they asked each state to give its prison population for the first day in 2010.

Researchers gathered the data and measured the differences.

While Florida's 1.5 percent increase was on the low end — compared with the biggest percentage jump, Indiana with a 5.3 percent increase — when it comes to counting the actual number of prisoners, Florida had the second-largest increase.

The state added 1,527 inmates into its prisons. The only state to have more was Pennsylvania, with more than 2,100 additional inmates.

Advocates for prison reform say the need is obvious. Florida doesn't have the money to build additional prisons, especially in the current economy.

"It's an absolutely critical issue because Florida can't afford to build new prisons," said Barney Bishop, CEO of Associated Industries of Florida.

Reform supporters argue that state corrections leaders need to shift money away from building prisons and put it into several different areas that include:

• Treatment and diversion programs. These provide certain offenders with therapy and drug courts to help them conquer their problems.

• Learning programs. These would be for people in prison to give them skills so they don't commit crimes again when they get out.

Nationally, the number of people in state prisons dropped very slightly, just 0.4 percent. Still, it was the first decline in the overall population of state prisons since the early 1970s, according to Pew.

"It's been going up for so long that any size drop is noticeable," Gelb said.

"But it's too early to tell whether this is a tap of the brakes or a shift in reverse."

While the number of inmates in state prisons went down overall, the number of people incarcerated in federal prisons went up 3.4 percent, to more than 208,000 inmates.

Typically, state prisons hold people convicted of crimes such as murder, robbery and rape, while federal prisons incarcerate those convicted of fraud and corruption.

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