A fresh set of money-saving recommendations by a constitutionally mandated commission provides powerful ammunition for the governor and Legislature to slash state spending by billions -- if Tallahassee can buck special interests and muster political courage.
One of the key elements in the Government Efficiency Task Force's 250-page report is reform of the criminal justice system and a shift in corrections priorities. The commission proposed sound and proven policies that reduce recidivism -- inmate education, vocational training and literacy programs. The panel also suggested judicial discretion on sentencing based on a felon's risk of committing additional crimes upon release.
Coincidentally, at the same time this report became public, a 35-state study revealed Florida leads the nation in lengthy prison sentences.
Over a 19-year period, the average time an inmate spent behind prison bars increased an astounding 166 percent, far surpassing second-place Virginia's 91 percent increase.
The Pew Center on the States study determined Florida spent an additional $1.4 billion on prisons just in 2009, laying the blame on longer sentences -- with much of that served by nonviolent felons. Another Pew analysis concluded some nonviolent offenders could have been freed two years earlier with little or no threat to society.
Florida spends $19,000 annually on every prisoner. In 2004 alone, the state would have saved $54 million had 2,640 nonviolent offenders been released early, the Pew study stated.
This year the Legislature found the political backbone to approve a bill that would have given judges the power to reduce sentences on a small number of inmates who had served at least half their sentences while completing rehabilitation programs.
But Gov. Rick Scott vetoed the measure, with the justification that it would violate the state requirement that offenders complete at least 85 percent of their sentences. The Pew study cited that 1995 law as one of the major factors in longer prisons stays and resulting higher costs.
Blame also went to the tough 10-20-Life law, but minimum mandatory sentences for crimes involving firearms cannot be pardoned. Nobody disputes the concept that violent and career criminals should serve long sentences, but the state and society do not benefit from tough terms for nonviolent and even minor crimes.
A nationwide movement to reduce sentences on fairly minor crimes has strong conservative allies, including former Gov. Jeb Bush and anti-tax activist Grover Norquist. Scott should take note that he is on the wrong side of this issue even among his fellow conservatives. Even such conservative states as Texas are reforming laws to reduce prison populations.
The fear of appearing soft on crime should not hold sway here, not when the state is wasting so much taxpayer money on punishment when inmate reform would be cheaper and more effective.
The Government Efficiency Task Force points out the state only spends a paltry 1 percent of the prison budget on offender education when such programs reduce recidivism and ultimately save money.
In the 2009-2010 fiscal year, the state reported that only 14,000 inmates received any schooling while only 5,250 had vocational training -- this out of a prison population of 102,000. Some 33 percent of inmates become repeat offenders when better equipping them to rejoin society would reduce that figure.
This past legislative session the state considered prison privatization as a way to lower costs. The private prison industry has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Florida Republican Party, some $784,000 in 2010 alone, earning the support of leading legislators. But a bipartisan group of senators squelched the legislation, and rightfully so.
Greater savings of tax money will be found with the task force recommendations, not privatization -- if only Tallahassee can fend off special interests again and find the political courage to adopt reforms.