Get smart on crime, not just 'tough'

Miami Herald EditorialAugust 25, 2013 

In Florida, "tough on crime" has evolved into "ignoring the facts," "beholden to prison builders" and "holding on to my seat in the Legislature for dear life."

Add state lawmakers' willingness to spend millions to incarcerate some people -- money that could be better spent rehabilitating them to live law-abiding lives outside prison walls -- and you have Florida's modus operandi for dealing with its sentencing laws.

Unfortunately, in a state where the governor and lawmakers have little desire to provide healthcare for more than a million uninsured or take another look at the dangerous Stand Your Ground law, it's a safe bet that they aren't dying to go to bat for lawbreakers, no matter how minor their offenses.

Other states alter course

But they would be going against the slowly rising tide of states, including Georgia, Kentucky, Ohio and -- get this! -- Texas, that have eased off of draconian sentencing laws and enacted those more in keeping with today's reality of falling crime rates, bulging prisons, state coffers stretched to the limit and fairness.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder played catch-up when he ordered federal prosecutors to step back from charging every last two-bit, nonviolent drug offender with crimes that carry minimum mandatory sentences.

Even U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., no friend of the Obama administration, blogged that Mr. Holder's move "signaled a significant shift toward justice."

The attorney general didn't make the policy change because he's squishy on crime, he did it because he sees what keeping first-time, low-level drug offenders in prison for a long time has cost -- in state finances, family stability and human capital.

Mr. Holder is in no way suggesting that such offenders, whether arrested with a small amount of drugs, or on the hunt for prescription drugs, or caught in the same car as a dealer should not have to face the justice system. Rather, he's looking at the facts. Florida legislators should, too.

As outlined by Herald reporter Mary Ellen Klas, it costs Florida $58,400 to imprison a drug offender for a mandatory three-year prison term. The cost of treatment in a work-release program? It's $19,130, according to the Florida Office of Program and Policy Analysis and Government Accountability. Meanwhile, Florida's crime rate is at a 41-year low. But its prison population is growing with nonviolent, first-time offenders, most of them snagged by undercover agents who targeted them for trafficking small quantities of prescription drugs.

These are people who need help, a lot of it. The long prison terms may soothe the tough-on-crime crowd, but it does little to advance the cause of rehabilitation and second chances.

Prison costs soaring

The cost of housing those prisoners sentenced to minimum mandatory sentences is estimated to be $97.5 million a year, according to the state Department of Corrections. Only one third received treatment or re-entry skills and, after they were released, three in five return on a drug offense.

State lawmakers had a chance to impose some sanity on sentencing with a modest proposal by Rep. Katie Edwards, D-Sunrise. Last year she sponsored legislation that would have let judges depart from minimum mandatory sentences for trafficking in illegal prescription drugs.

The bill was blocked in the Senate. However, it passed every House committee, an encouraging sign that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are beginning to realize that it's time to be smarter on crime, and not just tough.

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