Prison Reform Advocates Push for "Smart Justice"

Tallahassee, FL – Advisers to Gov. Rick Scott have called for sweeping overhauls to Florida's corrections and juvenile justice systems. While they've targeted detention facilities and state jobs for cuts or elimination, they've also criticized lawmakers for being "tough on crime, but fiscally short-sighted." As Margie Menzel reports, the governor's advisers reflect a right-left consensus that's pushing for a more pragmatic, outcome-driven approach to justice.

A reformed convict at Gov. Rick Scott's inaugural prayer breakfast - could Watergate mastermind Chuck Colson be the herald of prison reform here? Florida has 101,000 inmates - up from 82,000 in 2004.

"So we Christians have a very, very high view of government," Colson said in his speech. "What is government's job in the Bible? It is to preserve order and to do justice."

If Scott, also a Christian, is calling for reform, he's not alone. As prison growth has exploded - it's now 8.5 percent of Florida's budget, more than any item save education and Medicaid - a surprising coalition of Christian conservatives, social workers and budget hawks has been calling for a new era in criminal justice. Take Pat Nolan, once the law-and-order leader of the California Assembly, then a convict and now the president of Justice Fellowship. He asks policymakers to consider the humanity of people behind bars.

" often put on a bus at midnight, getting off in a central city at 2 or 3 in the morning. They don't know where they'll lay their head that night," Nolan said. "Where can they be safe - a park, under a bridge? Where will they eat in the morning? How will they buy something to eat? Where do they go to look for a job? How do they get medications?"

Rather than locking em up and throwing away the key, get-tough-on-crime types are looking at the data. U.S. Senator Jim Webb of Virginia, in a Parade Magazine article last year, wrote that Americans are imprisoned at a rate of 756 inmates per 100,000 residents - nearly five times the world's average. One of every 31 adults is behind bars or on supervised release. "Either we are the most evil people on earth," Webb wrote, "or we are doing something very wrong."

"But it became evident that there needed to be, and there was, a groundswell movement for reform, to nudge both our business and political leaders."

That's Steve Seibert of the Collins Center for Public Policy, which sponsored the 2009 Justice Summit. Associated Industries of Florida and Florida TaxWatch also support cutting recidivism to cut the corrections budget. Seibert noted that it costs a $100 million to build a prison, $25 million a year to operate one, and that the Department of Corrections had more underway - even as the state endured an historic budget crisis.

"We must get past those superficial descriptions of being hard on crime or being soft on crime. Rather, it is time to be smart about crime," Seibert said.

"Smart on crime" means operating efficiencies. It means not releasing inmates with nothing to eat, nowhere to stay, and not enough schooling for a job - especially given the recession and the state's 12-percent unemployment rate. And especially given that 88 percent of inmates will be released at some point.

"And under the regime in Florida right now, basically a third of them get out every year," said Allison DeFoor, a member of Scott's law-and-order transition team. "So which one do you want sitting behind your daughter in a dark theater - the one that got drug treatment and learned how to read and write and came closer to his understanding of God? Or the other one?"

DeFoor, a chaplain in the faith- and character-based program at Wakulla Corrections Institution; he's also been a sheriff and a judge. He says Scott, as the former chief executive of a hospital chain, will base his policies on benchmarks...data...outcomes.

"To put it in Rick Scott terms that the governor might appreciate, you've got a system that is a hospital and wants you back," DeFoor said. "That won't work in the long run. And I think that anyone who's run hospitals should grasp that pretty quick, and I believe this governor understands these issues pretty well."

What cuts recidivism: dealing with problems that land most inmates behind bars in the first place. Estimates show as many as 80 percent with a substance-abuse or mental-health problem. The average education is barely seventh grade. Texas Representative Jerry Madden, a long-term GOP lawmaker who led his state's efforts to divert offenders into mental health and drug treatment programs, said prison reform is not a partisan issue.

"This is an issue where both thoughtful conservative thinkers and thoughtful moderate or liberal thinkers generally will agree," said Madden. "They'll disagree at the fringes. You have some areas that they'll disagree on. But if you take the vast majority of things that are in there that we deal with in corrections, they'll agree."

According to the Department of Corrections, felons who completed a substance abuse program were 56-percent less likely to return to prison than peers who went untreated. Inmates with a GED and a vocational certificate on release were 18.3 percent less likely to return than the general inmate population.