Time to reform Florida costly, weak corrections system; emphasize rehabilitation

Florida's weak correctional system leads the country in the number of inmates freed from prison without support or supervision, a 2014 state-by-state analysis by the Pew Charitable Trust found. Those are prisoners who served full sentences, and a large number commit new crimes against new victims before returning to prison at another round of exorbitant costs.

On Wednesday in Sarasota, the 2015 Justice Summit hosted by the Florida Smart Justice Alliance, with 13 lawmakers in attendance, came to the pragmatic conclusion that prisoner services must be increased -- from education and job training to treatment for substance abuse and mental health issues.

This policy shift in crime and punishment has been building for several years, and hopefully puts Florida on a path toward results-oriented accountability instead of a blind commitment to incarceration only.

With more than 100,000 inmates in the state's prisons, only 23 percent -- about 30,000 -- receive services after being released.

Rehabilitation got pushed aside nationwide in the 1990s in the wake of the adoption of zero-tolerance policies and mandatory sentences. That came after Florida abolished parole in 1983.

By 2002, Florida had revamped zero tolerance thrice -- harsher at each step thanks to lawmakers flexing their tough-on-crime bona fides. The cost to taxpayers ballooned as more prisons were built and more law enforcement and corrections officers went on various government payrolls.

Upon the release of the Pew study last June, the LeRoy Collins Institute cited a startling statistic: One in seven state employees serves the Department of Corrections, a costly drag on the state budget.

Florida's criminal justice system has been dominated by public policies that only serve to mete out harsh punishment.

Times are changing, though. Last year, Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill that allows nonviolent, first-time offenders apprehended with small amounts of illegal substances to be sent to drug court instead of prison.

Before, a mere handful of narcotic prescription pills would put defendants in prison for three years. The new law contains far shorter sentences for other drug offenses.

A state analysis shows this law could save Florida almost $50 million over five years and prevent nearly 500 individuals from entering prison.

Juveniles in Manatee County have long been diverted to rehabilitation programs, called Teen Court and Teen Court Too. Should first-time offenders involved in minor crimes complete their sentences, as determined by other youngsters, they would avoid a return trip to Juvenile Court. Manatee County also offers an array of crime prevention, intervention and treatment programs to help juveniles avoid incarceration.

Taxpayer savings are huge. The average cost of juvenile detention is more than $40,000 annually while prevention and diversion services only cost $2,000.

Adults in the corrections system need greater opportunities to survive once on the outside. As one legislator stated during the 2015 Justice Summit, inmates housed with hard-core lifers and denied services often get out of prison in worse condition than their first day behind bars. Current policy is an abject failure.

Florida should focus on rebuilding lives by creating educated, employable and healthy individuals. All the concern expressed at the summit lends hope that such reforms are coming.