Thursday, February 18, 2010

Prison Treatment: Political Cover or Enlightened Leadership

Lock'em up is no longer the mantra of Florida's criminal justice system. Governor Charlie Christ might not yet be ready for the Criminal Defenders Association man of the year award, but Christ has made a radical departure form his previous position on crime and punishment.

In previous posts, I have detailed California's questionable decision to cut prison treatment and education programs as well as Texas' ongoing debate about closing some of its 112 state prisons. Texas and Florida have earned hearty reputations as law and order states. Their change of direction with regard to prisons is nothing short of astonishing.

Early in his political career, Governor Christ earned the moniker "Chain Gang Charlie" for his support of re-instituting chain gangs in Florida. He presides over a state that has 60 prisons, 41 work/forestry camps, one treatment center, 30 work release centers and five road prisons. The prison population has grown to over 100,0000. Today, Florida has the nations third largest prison population behind only California and Texas.

That is why the recent report in the St. Petersburg Times is so surprising. The state has backed away from plans to build more prisons and will instead invest in re-entry services and prison diversion programs. Governor Christ's proposed budget includes no money for new prisons.

Not everyone is on board in the Sunshine State. The Times reported that a key player, the chairwoman of the house criminal justice budget committee is opposed. Representative Sandy Adams said, "I don't believe we need to let criminals out of institutions just for budget purposes."

My Take

Governor Christ's change in direction has little to do with a more enlightened way of governing. It has everything to do with tight budgets. According to the Times, each inmate in Florida cost about $20,000 a year. With more than 100,000 inmates and a projected increase of 15-percent over the coming years Florida's prison system is unsustainable.

Treatment can be done on the cheap and provides cover for politicians who have no choice but to let more people out of prison, put fewer offenders in prison while trying to maintain a tough on crime persona.

Meaningful, evidence-based treatment is a different story. It must be implemented with well trained facilitators in sufficient dosage to make an impact. Florida can do more harm than good if policymakers use treatment as political cover and not as a tool to reduce recidivism.

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