Photo:At the Second Chances Farm at Lowell Correctional Institute near Ocala, female inmates are trained to care for retired thoroughbred horses. The inmates earn a vocational certificate in equine care technology.
Crime & punishment: Changes at Florida Dept. of Corrections
The Smart Justice movement has spurred criminal justice overhauls in some states, including Georgia. In Florida, reform is happening in fits and starts.
In 2009, Florida’s prison growth seemed to be out of control. The state’s inmate population had topped 100,000 for the first time and was projected to grow another 20% over the next five years. At that rate, corrections officials warned, they’d need to build 19 prisons at a cost of $2 billion.
Alarmed by the costs, business groups, including Florida TaxWatch, Associated Industries of Florida and the Florida Chamber began urging Florida’s tough-on-crime Legislature to embrace a different correctional philosophy. For all its tough sentencing, 88% of inmates now in Florida prisons will one day be released. Instead of spending money on more beds, they argued, Florida ought to invest in programs to cut the state’s recidivism rate: Nearly one of three inmates released is back behind bars within three years. Meanwhile, some offenders, including chronic substance abusers and other non-violent criminals, could be offered alternatives to jail time.
Four years later, reformers report mixed results. They point to the expansion of Florida’s civil citation program, which provides alternatives to prison for first-time, non-violent offenders. Wansley Walters, now secretary of the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, pioneered the program in Miami-Dade County when she directed juvenile services there. Between 1998 and 2008, juvenile arrests plummeted by 51% and re-arrests fell 80%, saving the county more than $20 million each year. The program was expanded statewide for juveniles in 2011, and an adult civil citation pilot program was launched last year in Leon County.
Another promising sign: The state’s recidivism rate has dropped by nearly 5% since 2009, when the Florida Department of Corrections designated its first transitional prison exclusively focused on preparing inmates for the transition back into community. Today, the state operates three correctional institutions dedicated to re-entry and plans to open a fourth in January. With $2.9 million from the Legislature, the newly built Gadsden Reentry Center will provide 432 prisoners everything from substance abuse treatment to vocational training, life skills and education.
In other facilities, volunteers help inmates with everything from studying for their GEDs to learning how to put together a resume or interview for a job. Chris Southerland, new deputy assistant secretary of re-entry at the Department of Corrections, says “once we started realizing these programs are important and they are changing people’s lives and this does affect the crime rate in the community, it just makes sense.”
Despite the successes, reformers have come up empty in their push for sentencing reform. Florida has some of the harshest punishments in the nation, particularly for drug-related offenses. Florida law defines drug “trafficking” as possession of a given weight of illegal drugs, for example, so illegal possession of 28 grams of a painkiller like hydrocodone — about 44 pills — triggers a mandatory minimum 25-year prison sentence.