Florida inmates may do less hard time - Gainesville Sun
By JOE FOLLICK
Sun Tallahassee Bureau
12:36 am, August 25, 2007
TALLAHASSEE - After years of "tough on crime'' policies that have caused the number of Florida inmates to soar since 1990, the state's prison chief is suggesting less hard time for thousands of offenders.
The proposals are early in the planning stage and wouldn't reduce the time spent under the Department of Corrections' watch. But they could move low-risk prisoners into work release, substance abuse and education programs.
Florida DOC Secretary James McDonough said the changes would save millions and increase public safety by prepping inmates for release.
"Let's put them in the sorts of institutions that will better prepare them for their return in a few months,'' he said. "This probably increases public safety because it takes that next cohort of potential work release inmates and moves them into that process sooner, which gives them a chance to integrate.''
Facing a bad economy that will require lawmakers to cut $1 billion or more from the state budget in a special session next month, Gov. Charlie Crist ordered agencies to prepare a plan for 10 percent cuts, though it's unlikely immediate cuts will be nearly as deep.
McDonough's proposals may not be necessary, and they would need approval from lawmakers and Crist, who was dubbed "Chain Gang Charlie'' in the 1990s. As a state senator, he sponsored the law that requires inmates serve 85 percent of their sentence as well as an effort to return inmates to roadside work crews.
Crist said Friday that "it's not my predisposition'' to consider moving inmates out of prison, but he said he respects McDonough's "excellent judgment'' that those released would pose little threat to the public.
"I would have to see who the offenders were, what they committed, who potentially would be eligible for something like this,'' Crist said.
Sen. Victor Crist, no relation to the governor, is chairman of the Senate's criminal justice appropriations committee. He said he was not yet familiar with McDonough's plan, but added that the concept might face a tough hearing.
"That is something, early release, that wouldn't sit well with me or with the governor,'' said Sen. Crist, R-Tampa, not ruling out any plan. "The thing we need to do is get up there and take a look at everything on the table.''
McDonough said that even if there was not a budget crisis, he would still recommend the ideas.
"To some degree the times opened up an opportunity to publicly project these ideas,'' he said. "I think they're good ideas. I stand by them.''
McDonough said the worst option to cut 10 percent - or more than $250 million - from DOC's budget is to do nothing and allow prisons to become so overcrowded that courts order inmates released. McDonough said that's not imminent.
He's more enthusiastic about two other options.
One is to release up to 3,000 prisoners who are near the end of their sentence and already working in public while staying in DOC-operated facilities at night. Their spots would be filled with prison inmates on waiting lists for work release.
"You would be amazed how they permeate the society of Florida,'' McDonough said of work release inmates. "You'd be amazed at how many of your waiters, your busboys, your cooks are actually guys from the work release center three miles away.''
Those released from the centers would still be subject to drug testing, pay garnishment and other oversight from DOC.
The other option affects so-called "year and a day'' inmates. To avoid putting offenders in crowded county jails, many local officials ask for a sentence of 366 days, the threshold that moves an offender into state prison.
"I do not fault local communities or municipalities from trying to do cost displacement,'' McDonough said of the practice, adding that at least 3,600 inmates have "year and a day'' sentences.
McDonough suggests putting some of those offenders into halfway houses or substance abuse treatment centers instead of prisons. He says that would save money and allow for a better transition into society.
He added that these prisoners, since some of their sentence has been served in county jails or processing, rarely spend more than a few months in prison.
"It does not do society a whole lot of good because they're lingering in almost transient status until they get right back out on the street as opposed to truly serving the sentence,'' McDonough said.