[UPDATE] Paying for Prisons

By: The News Service of Florida; Capitol News Email
By: The News Service of Florida; Capitol News Email

[UPDATE] 1-25 10:30AM --

Florida lawmakers turned to Texas on Monday for ideas on how to keep prisoners locked up at a time when the state faces a $3.6 billion budget deficit and cuts, including in the public safety budget, appear likely.

The scenario portrayed by the corrections officers’ union when then-candidate Rick Scott started talking about slashing $1 billion from the prisons budget doesn’t appear likely. The ad by the Florida Police Benevolent Association called Scott’s plans “law enforcement’s worst nightmare, and featured one released prisoner saying, “Let’s Get to Work.”

It’s not just the governor’s office that says that’s just not likely to play out.

“Politically, you’re not going to open the door and let them out,” Texas state Rep. Jerry Madden, R-Plano, told a panel of lawmakers who help write the Senate criminal justice budget and consider new measures related to law and order.

Senate Criminal Justice Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, and Criminal Justice Committee Chairman Greg Evers held the first of several scheduled meetings to take ideas on how the justice system could be reformed to reduce costs.

Their first guest, though was not a public safety official from the Sunshine State, but Madden, the chair of the Texas House of Representatives Committee on Corrections who received national recognition for his work in reducing prison costs.

“You could do things that were smart and, by the way, didn’t cost as much,” Madden said.

Cutting down on the number of repeat offenders taking up beds is one obvious answer, he said. During his two hour presentation to lawmakers, Madden pressed the importance of spending money on treatment programs for inmates who, if treated for addiction, could be reintroduced to society and have safe, productive futures. The money was better spent on these people who could be rehabilitated, whom he referred to as “swingers,” because they could go either way, instead of inmates who are incredibly violent.

“Spend your money on the swingers,” Madden said.

Fasano has already told members of his committee to expect a difficult session that will likely involve some cuts to the criminal justice system.

Scott has given some hints, saying that waste and efficiency are big targets, for example.

The Senate also already has a bit of a plan that involves expanded use of drug courts, faith-based prison units and electronic monitoring of prisoners kept in the community, all suggested as possibilities in a recent study by legislative analysts. Other possibilities that have been mentioned include lessening drug penalties, and trying to divert more would-be prisoners to mental health treatment.

The problem, some lawmakers said, is that the state needs the savings now, not a few years down the road. The state’s justice system has taken a hit over the past several years, particularly in the court system.

Dockets are overcrowded and cases that once took one to three months, now take more like six to nine months.

In some criminal cases, public attorneys are handling more than the suggested caseload by American Bar Association, drawing questions about the adequacy of representation.

Evers said he thought Madden’s presentation gave lawmakers a great place to start the discussion on reform, but wouldn’t speculate on the efficacy of any one particular plan going forward, simply saying that the Senate would look at a “lot of these” and that it should not be seen as backing away from punishing criminals.

“I don’t that we’re actually going in a different direction,” he said. “I just think that our pocketbook can’t afford just locking everybody up.”

Future committee meetings will include presentations from the Department of Corrections and vendors for private prisons. His committee will also tour a prison, he said.

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Texas Representative Jerry Madden helped reform his state’s prison system. Madden showed Florida lawmakers in Tallahassee today how Texas reduced its prison population and saved money. Senator Mike Fasano is open to new ideas, but doesn’t want any policy changes to hinder progress the state has already made.

“We want to be very cautious here in Florida. We’ve worked very hard over the years in implementing tough legislation, tough crime legislation on those who commit crimes in the state. The 85 percent rule, three strikes and you’re out, 10/20 life; I don’t want to diminish anything that we’ve been successful doing. The crime rate is down in Florida, and I think a lot of it has to do with going after those who commit crimes and those who are repeat offenders,” said Fasano.

Some of Madden’s ideas to cut the 2.4 billion state tax dollars spent on prisons include reducing sentences for petty drug crimes and focus more resources on keeping released inmates from re-offending.


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