Legislator response to criticism of prison law
TBO.comNEW PORT RICHEY - Tough-on-crime laws represent a dual-edged sword as state lawmakers struggle with paying for prisons.
Published: June 6, 2012
Published: June 6, 2012
Attempts by Gov. Rick Scott to win legislative approval for privatizing the operations of state prisons in South Florida to save money failed this year. The debate, however, touched upon the expense of housing all those prisoners.
Florida's prison population mushroomed in recent decades, Julie Ebenstein, policy and advocacy attorney for the ACLU of Florida, wrote in a recent opinion column in The Tampa Tribune.
"Our prison population has doubled since 1994 and more than quadrupled since 1985, when 'tough on crime' rhetoric spawned harsh drug laws, mandatory minimum sentences and Florida's unique law requiring everyone — regardless of the crime — to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence," Ebenstein wrote.
One of the architects of some of those laws, state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, defends the 85 percent requirement.
"The voters spoke years ago wanting every person convicted of a crime to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence and no less," Fasano said. "I fully support their decision."
Crime is down in Florida because of the tough crime laws, Fasano believes.
The crackdown helped stop the "revolving door and locking up repeat offenders," said Fasano, a vocal opponent of Scott's prison privatization plan.
"Sadly, it seems like at times there is more concern for the criminal than the victim and his or her family," Fasano added. "We must continue to put the victim and our community first."
Ebenstein pointed to the fact that Florida has more than 100,000 people in prison, a population larger than Clearwater, West Palm Beach or Pompano Beach.
"Decades of research has shown that treatment is less expensive than incarceration and prevents crime by addressing the causes of criminal activity," Ebenstein wrote. "When people leave prison without treatment, job skills or support, they are unprepared to rejoin their communities as full and productive participants and far more likely to land back in prison."
She lamented that Scott, on April 6, vetoed legislation that could have made about 337 nonviolent inmates eligible to receive drug treatment and supervised release after serving at least half of their sentence and completing a six-month treatment program.
"We simply cannot afford to keep so many people in prison for so long," Ebenstein argues.
The corrections budget alone — not counting law enforcement or the court system — is $2.18 billion this year.
"Smart Justice" proposals could restore judicial discretion to sentencing and result in less-costly treatment options, Ebenstein wrote.