Florida Lawmakers Weigh Rehabilitation to Shorten Prison Time

Florida lawmakers, facing a projected deficit next year of as much as $2.3 billion, are considering bills expanding prisoner rehabilitation to shorten prison time and lower costs.

A House subcommittee passed two bills today, one of which provides drug treatment as an alternative to incarceration and reduces jail time for some nonviolent criminals. A Senate committee heard proposals to curtail recidivism and shorten stays by expanding in-prison treatment.

“When we have a drug offender that we can rehabilitate, me as a taxpayer, I don’t want to continue paying for them to sit just for the sake of punishment,” Representative James Grant, a Tampa Republican, said in Tallahassee.

Florida, whose prison population has grown by more than 40 percent since 2000, is not alone considering lower prison costs as states face projected budget gaps that exceed $45 billion.

Georgia’s Legislature created a council on a criminal justice overhaul that will make recommendations to Republican Governor Nathan Deal by Nov. 1. California counties are working to expand rehabilitation as the state shifts 33,000 inmates to local jails to help cut what was a $26 billion projected deficit.

Florida’s first-term Republican Governor Rick Scott campaigned in November on reducing the state’s $2.4 billion prison budget by a cumulative $1 billion over seven years, in part by expanding rehabilitation.

Budget Cut

This year, the Corrections Department’s operating budget was cut by more than $200 million, or 9 percent, according to a website created by the Florida Legislature.

The House Appropriations Committee was told earlier this month that the budget deficit will likely range from $1.2 billion to $2.3 billion next year as tax collections miss projections.

Providing rehabilitation as an alternative to prison time will cost the state “less than half” the current expense and will reduce recidivism, said Ari Abraham Porth, a Coral Springs Democrat who sponsored one of the House bills.

Florida inmates are now “turned out of prison with $100 and a bus ticket,” he said at the committee meeting. “There aren’t appropriate rehabilitation programs presently.”

A House analysis of the bill said it “will likely” reduce state spending. A report by Florida TaxWatch, a Tallahassee-based nonprofit researcher, said the savings were likely to be “substantial.” Neither put a dollar figure on potential reductions.

Pre-Trail Programs

The House subcommittee also passed a bill that would expand pre-trial substance-abuse programs, potentially saving local governments money by reducing the number of drug offenders who serve time, according to an analysis of the legislation.

Other measures, such as cutting time children spend in detention and expanding work-release programs, are also likely to save money, Robert Weissert, vice president for research at Florida TaxWatch, told the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice.

“If Florida’s prison population decreased to only the fiscal year 2000 levels, Florida taxpayers would save more than $600 million,” he said.

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