This post is also published in Orlando Sentinel.
As the 2020 session of the Florida Legislature approaches, Florida Corrections Secretary Mark Inch has told lawmakers he needs $90 million more to add and retain prison guards to deal with critical understaffing.
The amount of taxpayer dollars needed to keep people locked up went from $2.4 billion in 2018 to $2.7 billion this year, driven by court orders to provide adequate health care and mental health services for an aging prison population. And that doesn’t count the tens of millions of dollars spent housing more than 50,000 people in county jails daily.
Meanwhile, other Southern states have begun to slash their prison populations — and their prison spending — since the Great Recession in 2009. According to a new national study, Mississippi locks up 15 percent fewer people; Louisiana, 16 percent; South Carolina 17 percent; and Alabama, a whopping 25 percent.
By finding alternatives to incarceration, including treatment programs for people suffering from substance use, and funding better re-entry programs to keep those released from backsliding, other southern states are saving millions of dollars that they can use to stimulate the economy and provide better community resources.
Leaders in those states simply decided they could no longer afford to waste millions in taxpayer dollars in revolving door prison systems that did not keep their states safer and it’s time Florida does the same.
Other states that started these policies earlier have gone even farther: In the past 20 years, New York has reduced its prison population by 32 percent and New Jersey by 38 percent. None of the states mentioned have reported crime waves as a result. They decided that the vogue of the 1990s—mass incarceration—was too costly and unnecessarily destroyed lives.
In those states, criminal justice reform has won bi-partisan support. Traditional conservatives avidly embraced the cost-cutting and the scientific data that demonstrated that locking people up was not only more expensive but often counterproductive.
Conservatives and libertarians like the Koch Brothers have championed the reforms. And in December 2018, President Donald Trump signed the federal First Step Act, which will result in thousands of individuals who do not pose a threat to society being released from federal prison and receiving improved re-entry services.
Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Legislature, meanwhile, spend more money every year in service of a false narrative: While other states have decided to invest in people and not prisons, some Florida conservatives still cling to an outdated, ineffective, and costly “tough on crime” approach that results in devastating families and communities. The truth is Florida lawmakers are being tough on Florida taxpayers. In the 2020 legislative session, they will once again have a chance to embrace reforms that will keep Floridians safe and save money at the same time.
The most impactful change proposed is also the simplest and the safest: we could save millions of taxpayer dollars by increasing the amount of good behavior and rehabilitation credits that can be earned and applied towards reducing an individual’s sentence. These credits are for such activities as learning a skill or trade, completing an education program, or general good behavior — in other words, for doing the very things we demand individuals do in prison — pay their debt and learn how to become contributing members of society. Doing so would incentivize rehabilitation and free up millions that are currently being wasted on warehousing individuals who do not pose a threat to society and do not need to be in prison.
At the moment, no matter how much a person has repented for their mistakes and turned their life around and demonstrated to everyone that they do not pose a risk to public safety, they must still serve 85 percent of their sentence. Bills to be introduced in 2020 would lower that to 65 percent for those prisoners who qualify for the credits, creating greater incentive for good behavior and rehabilitation.
State budget estimators have said that this one move could reduce Florida’s prison population by 9,000 by 2023-24 and save $860 million. Some estimates have predicted a reduction in prison population of twice that size and even greater savings. That would put Florida in step with other states in the region. At the moment, Florida is the big-spending outlier.
Give currently incarcerated people a chance to earn their way out. Tell your state lawmakers that they should increase the time off for good behavior and self-improvement. Let’s invest in people not prisons, and save taxpayer money too.