Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Florida can't pay for new penalties, prisons

More states are rethinking their incarceration policies because of the current economic downturn. Most recently Florida, according to the Orlando Sentinel, has run up against the limits of their ability to pay for state prisons.
With the state short on cash and prison beds, Republicans in the Florida Legislature are being forced to reassess the tough-on-crime mentality that has permeated their politics for years.

Florida's prison population cracked 100,000 this year, and state prison officials expect to need more and more prison beds during the next five years as the number of people incarcerated swells past 120,000. ...

"Our prisons are growing faster than anything else in our state," said Senate criminal-justice budget chief Victor Crist, a Tampa Republican.
Texas would be in the same boat if we hadn't begun reforming the probation system in 2007, and more work is needed to keep the prison system afloat beyond the short-term.

Florida is spending new money for drug courts and diversion programs while putting off opening new prison beds because they can't pay for staffing:
This year's money crunch also prompted lawmakers to abandon plans to bond out $300million in new prison construction in future years.

Rather, to address its prison-population growth, lawmakers ended years of resistance and included plans in the state's $66.5billion budget passed Friday to beef up drug courts across the state. These courts are designed to find programs for drug users instead of dumping them into the state prison system.
Though in many ways Texas is ahead of the Sunshine State on prison diversion, the Sentinel reports that Florida's budget crunch has caused legislators to take a step that our legislators haven't been able to muster: They've actually ceased passing new criminal penalties because they can't afford new prison beds.
Lawmakers also directed circuit judges to keep more nonviolent offenders who commit lower-level crimes out of prisons. ...

Lawmakers shied from the normal bills stiffening sentences for sexual predators, drug crimes and other offenses.

Another bill to crack down on smuggling illegal immigrants into the country passed only after the penalty was watered down from prison time to a fine.
By contrast, Texas keeps passing bills with increased criminal penalties, seemingly oblivious to the long-term financial costs. For some reason, the cognitive dissonance of passing prison diversion bills at the same time they're boosting penalties doesn't seem to phase our legislators.


Anonymous said...

After spending decades of locking everyone up, this is a natural progression. Next we will see empty prisons dotting the landscape. Maybe they can transform them into warehouses and private businesses for cash-starved communities.

kaptinemo said...

The (fiscally profligate) incarceration party that was driven by the false assumption there'd always be money to run the DrugWar at full tilt thanks to tax revenues from an ever-growing economy is over; now.

The drunken sailor must sober up, and in the process has realized he doesn't have as much money as he thought he did. So, here it is: decision time. It's coming down to whether ideology and/or prejudice (both fueled the DrugWar) or hard-nosed economics will prevail.

Arguing in favor of the DrugWar will rightly be criticized by those who could use that money for unemployment insurance, Medicaid, etc. It's hardly very convincing for drug prohibitionists to claim they are using the money to 'protect children from drugs' when those same kids are more in danger of homelessness and malnutrition courtesy of Mom and Dad being unemployed.

It's time for tough choices, what can we afford to be 'mad at' as opposed to behavior that actually needs incarceration? We'll soon find out...the hard way.