Roadmap Emerging for Scott's Billion Dollar Prison Cut

By: John Kennedy, The News Service of Florida
By: John Kennedy, The News Service of Florida

Tallahassee, FL - One of Gov.-elect Rick Scott’s most high-profile campaign promises – to slash $1 billion from the state’s prison system – drew a powerful pushback when the union representing correctional officers aired television spots warning he would start releasing inmates to reduce spending.

But a lengthy list of less-stunning belt-tightening measures is quietly emerging. Many are likely to find their way into Scott’s February budget proposal to lawmakers, those close to the incoming administration say.

“The plan was to find a billion in seven years,” said Scott spokesman Brian Burgess, disputing the Florida Police Benevolent Association’s TV spots, which implied the cut would be a first-year reduction that dramatically shrunk the Corrections Department’s $2.4 billion budget.

“We will do that and more by eliminating waste and improving efficiency,” Burgess said of the $1 billion savings claim. “Privatization isn’t necessary for us to achieve that goal, but nothing is off the table while we are still in the review and planning phase.”

The Florida Senate may be among those providing Scott with a roadmap to some savings. A recent study by the Criminal Justice Committee points out that state spending on inmate health care services hit $400 million last year – almost double the level of a decade ago. The study suggests that some of Scott’s cost-cutting could be reached by giving private vendors a bigger share of inmate care.

Meanwhile, the state’s Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability (OPPAGA) has sent to state legislative leaders a host of other potential prison savings, some of which mirror those also advanced by state business groups, led by Florida TaxWatch.

Expanding state drug courts to keep thousands of nonviolent criminals out of prison, expanding faith-based institutions to reduce recidivism, and expanding the use of electronic monitoring could save millions of dollars, analysts said.

But just as Scott is lining up such major repositories of cash as the Florida Retirement System and state worker health insurance for changes to extract savings, prison health care services are a big-ticket item that could rain dollars if revamped just right.

Still, done badly, the initiative could also backfire on the incoming governor.

With more than 103,915 inmates scattered across 55 prisons and 77 other lockups, the Corrections Department has had a checkered history with inmate health. A federal court in the milestone Costello v. Florida case in 1979 found that inadequate medical care amounted to cruel and unusual punishment in the state, prompting more than two decades of litigation and continued federal oversight of prison health care.

The Correctional Medical Authority was formed in 1986 to provide independent evaluation of the prison system’s health care services. CMA’s future also is in doubt, with allies of Scott and public health leaders recommending it be moved out of the Department of Health, as part of a likely overhaul of that agency.

About one-third of inmate health care dollars currently go to community providers. But the department has scaled back an ambitious, five-year privatized effort in South Florida after first having trouble with vendor, Wexford Health Sources, Inc., who failed to meet some of its contract requirements, and then later Prison Health Services, now PHS Correctional Healthcare, which dropped its state contract in 2006 after facing higher-than-expected hospitalization rates.

PHS, which has prison health contracts in 20 states, is headquartered in suburban Nashville, near where Scott’s former health care company, Columbia/HCA, was anchored. States with larger prison systems than Florida’s, Texas and California, contract privately for much of their inmate health care.

“We’d be excited at the prospect of putting in a proposal if the state moves in the direction of privatizing,” said Martha Harbin, a Florida spokeswoman for PHS. “Inmates are the only people with a constitutional guarantee of health care and it has to meet a community standard of care. That can be expensive. But with a private company, you’re getting a centralized management, saving on malpractice insurance…and you might even be able to have some inmates become eligible for Medicaid.”

Howard Simon, executive director of Florida’s ACLU, which has represented inmates in civil rights cases, said he hopes Scott puts as much emphasis on changing sentencing laws as he does on cutting prison costs through layoffs of correctional officers or privatizing health care.

“If you don’t have sentencing reform, drug treatment and the expanded use of drug courts to keep people out of prison, you are just adding to the inmate population that is exploding in the prison system,” Simon said.

Matt Puckett, a PBA spokesman, said it’s clear Scott’s $1 billion in corrections cuts may not involve wholesale inmate releases. But the changes may prove controversial on another level.

“I think you’re going to see more taxpayer money going to for-profit corporations providing care and treatment of inmates,” Puckett said.

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  • by Pete Location: Tarpon Springs on Dec 26, 2010 at 05:05 AM
    A policy change requiring the release of non-violent offenders is surely needed. A study released in February 2008 by the Pew Center for for the States entitled "One in 100," pointed to Florida's misguided policies as the cause of the near-doubling of the prison population in a 10-year period. The primary evil: the 1995 adoption of a law requiring ALL prisoners - violent and non-violent alike, to serve 85% of the court-imposed sentence. At nearly $20,00 a year to house a prisoner-Floridians can ill-afford to punish non-violent drug offenders as if they truly harmed someone or the community. Considering the fact that the cost of tuition, room, and board to attend FSU for the freshman year is $16,000, I dare say sending select non-violent prisoners to college might prove more fruitful (and less expensive to boot). Another report confirmed that while 60% of prisoners need drug treatment, 82% are release without getting that treatment. Florida's prisons are full because of bad policies.
  • by x-cop Location: leon on Dec 22, 2010 at 05:05 PM
    guardshave you got your pink slips yet? is your wives looking fora job yet?
  • by Former DOC Location: Florida on Dec 22, 2010 at 10:17 AM
    Scott could make great strides toward prison cut-backs if he could nail those DOC staffers who are milking the system dry, skimming budgeted funds into their own pockets, substituting lower quality goods/services, accepting contractor bribes, etc. Problem is, Scott will likely be snowed by Tallahassee mucky-mucks just as previous governors and appointed DOC secretaries have been. The fox is in charge and has a strong and loyal web of DOC staff, law enforcement, and judges in their pockets.
  • by prision GUARD Location: home on Dec 21, 2010 at 07:29 PM
    ebenzer--well then that makes you a total idiot.GET A LIFE.
  • by lynnec Location: tampa, fl on Dec 21, 2010 at 06:39 PM
    Prison don't have A/C or cable. Our laws and sentencing guidelines are putting everyone in prison. Not everyone charged needs to be sentenced to prison. Do research before you comment. Our laws regarding sentencing need to be changed. Inmates serves 85% of the time. No exception. That is why the prisons are full. We send 1st time non-violent offenders everyday. Hold the prosecutors and judges responsible. That will really stir things up. We need an overhaul. Surgery not a band aid.
  • by Ken Location: Florida on Dec 21, 2010 at 12:11 PM
    One easy way to cut costs would be to stop packing the prisons with the mentally ill. We don't want to provide them with health care or hospitals so we spend more money by throwing them in prison and then providing them with health care. When will law enforsement learn how to deal with the mentally ill?
  • by Anonymous Location: tally on Dec 21, 2010 at 09:51 AM
    The best place for scott to cut $$ is from the top down. when you have 3 people getting paid to do one persons job @ doc that a big waste. even assistants have assistants. this is crazy.
  • by Rafeeqah Location: TLH on Dec 21, 2010 at 09:29 AM
    @isthisreal - the majority of Florida prisons are not climate controlled. You should read the "Myths" page on the Florida Department of Corrections website. The PRIVATE prisons are climate controlled, but only a handful of state run facilities are.
  • by uneployed Location: ga on Dec 21, 2010 at 09:26 AM
    i can rember a time when a sheriff and a dept. could run a small town. start with the guards.
  • by Ebenezer Location: Tallahassee on Dec 21, 2010 at 07:55 AM
    I am uneducated and frequent these blogs to name call because i am intimidated by those with original thoughts.
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