Editor’s note: Below is a reprint of a Dec. 30 editorial in The (Lakeland) Ledger, courtesy of The Associated Press. Although Florida’s overall population is about 16 percent black, its prison population is more than 50 percent black, according to statistics from the Florida Department of Corrections and the U.S. Census Bureau.
This month, Florida’s prison population exceeded 100,000 for the first time.
Only California and Texas have more inmates. And Florida Corrections Secretary Walter McNeil says the Department of Corrections may have to put up tents to house all the inmates. McNeil said at the current growth trend, Florida will need 19 new prisons in the next five years.
That will require the DOC budget to nearly double, to about $4 billion.
But that’s not what McNeil is recommending. Instead, he wants lawmakers to re-evaluate tough mandatory-sentencing laws and concentrate on reducing high recidivism rate so inmates are less likely to return to prison once released.
The 100,000 mark “is sort of a demarcation point,” McNeil said. “For me it’s a statement that our prisons are becoming a burden, and the building of prisons is becoming a greater burden on the taxpayers.”
One way to reduce recidivism is to ensure that inmates have access to education, vocational, mental health and substance-abuse programs.
Unfortunately, when budgets are cut, those are usually the first things to go.
“Research data show that correctional education and associated academic achievement provide a positive turning point for incarcerated offenders in their post-release lives,” says Tom Blomberg, dean of the Florida State College of Criminology and Criminal Justice. “They are more likely to gain employment and therefore less likely to re-offend…”
In Florida, about one in three inmates is back in prison within three years of release. Of the 100,000 current inmates, 46 percent are in for a second time.
Building more prisons will cost Florida taxpayers a one-time investment of $76,923 per prisoner to build new prisons. Add $20,000 per year to that amount to keep each prisoner locked up. And to that add a projected increase of 5,000 prisoners each year through 2014.
In short, Florida needs to stop throwing money at new prisons and become a lot smarter about whom it locks up, what happens to inmates while they are incarcerated and how well prepared they are to re-enter society after their sentences are up.
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