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Change sought in Florida prison system BY CAROL MARBIN MILLER cmarbin@MiamiHerald.com A call by Florida's most powerful business lobby to halt prison construction and reform the criminal justice system is gaining surprising traction among policymakers in the wake of a deepening budget crisis and growing evidence that building new prison beds will not reduce crime. Four months after the head of Associated Industries of Florida stunned lawmakers with his plea to slow prison growth, a who's-who of business, religious and political leaders are asking Gov. Charlie Crist to consider alternatives to incarceration for non-violent offenders, particularly drug addicts. Crist and state lawmakers this week received an ''open letter'' from opinion-makers calling for a ``bold and serious conversation about justice reform.'' The statement was signed by three former Florida attorneys general -- Jim Smith, Bob Butterworth and Richard Doran -- along with retired Department of Corrections secretary James McDonough and the heads of the Florida Association of Counties and the Florida Catholic Conference. ''At a time when Florida is in serious recession and facing a deep state budget crisis, the $2 billion-plus budget of the Florida Department of Corrections has grown larger; and without reform, that budget will continue to grow at a pace that crowds out other mission-critical state services such as education, human service needs, and environmental protection,'' the group wrote. Calling itself the Coalition for Smart Justice, the group is asking state leaders to bolster education, drug and alcohol treatment and faith-based and character-building programs both within the state prison system and in community settings as an alternative to prison. Coalition members also want Crist to ''immediately implement'' a bill passed by the Legislature in 2008 that created ''the much needed'' Correctional Policy Advisory Council to offer new directions for criminal justice administration. Staying the course, coalition members wrote, will lead to ``too many non-violent individuals being incarcerated, too many prisons needing to be built at astounding public cost [and] too many young people moving from the juvenile justice system into the adult justice system.'' BREAKING CYCLE At the root of the state's failures, the group says, is the unwillingness of lawmakers to invest in programs -- such as job training, education and substance-abuse treatment -- that can break the cycle of crime and reduce recidivism. McDonough, the state's former drug czar and prisons chief, said Florida can avoid the need to build a new $100 million prison each year by spending one-fifth that amount on drug treatment. ''The math is irrefutable,'' McDonough said. ``That's $100 million right there that you don't have to spend immediately.'' Gretl Plessinger, DOC's spokeswoman, said the equation is far more complicated. Since the prison system runs on a five-year cycle based on ''strategic projections,'' the corrections agency cannot simply ``stop construction on a dime.'' ''Several projects are nearing completion,'' Plessinger said. ``We've already spent money, and to stop construction now would cost taxpayers quite a lot of money.'' DOC Secretary Walter McNeil does not favor the early release of inmates, Plessinger said, but does agree with the coalition's goal of increased spending on drug treatment and other programs designed to aid offenders' safe return to their communities. Close to 90 percent of state inmates eventually are released, she said. ''Secretary McNeil knows inmates who receive basic education, job skills training and substance abuse treatment are less likely to commit another crime and return to prison,'' Plessinger said. ``Through re-entry [programs], we can reduce our recidivism rate which will increase public safety and lower our inmate population.'' Sterling Ivey, a Crist spokesman, declined to discuss the letter in depth. ''We have received the letter and we are currently reviewing the information,'' he said. A driving force in the coalition is J. Allison DeFoor II, an admittedly unlikely prison reform activist as a former Monroe County sheriff, prosecutor, judge and reelection running mate for former Gov. Bob Martinez. Now an ordained Episcopal priest, the colorful politician tends a ministry at Wakulla Correctional Institution near Tallahassee. Among DeFoor's gripes: though faith-based programs at Wakulla have reduced recidivism among inmates from 33 percent to just 7 percent, Florida's waiting list for such programs has grown to 10,000-strong. ''I've seen everything that doesn't work,'' he says. ``And I've seen what does work.'' ''I can flatly tell you that 75 percent of the people in the system -- probably more than that -- have substance abuse and psychological problems,'' and treatment, education and counseling can help many of those men and women stay out of prison, he said. PREVENTION Butterworth, a former Broward sheriff, prosecutor and 20-year attorney general, said his two- year stint as secretary of the Department of Children & Families reinforced his belief in the value of prevention dollars -- which are typically the first to be cut during lean years. ''Sometimes the worst dollar we spend,'' Butterworth said, ``pays for bricks and mortar.'' Florida still will need prisons for violent felons, Butterworth said. But spending $1 billion over the next decade to build new prisons for drug addicts and people with mental illness, he added, is ``nuts. There's just got to be a better way.'' Steve Seibert, a former Pinellas County commissioner and secretary of the Deparment of Community Affairs under Gov. Jeb Bush, said he discovered another reason for reform while touring an Overtown community center: Leaders told him 70 percent of the neighborhood's men were ex-felons. 'That was an `Aha' moment for me,'' said Seibert, who as director of policy for the Collins Center for Public Policy is a coalition leader. ``All the affordable housing, economic development, parks, water and infrastructure-type stuff doesn't mean squat when 70 percent of the men in a community are ex-felons.'' And most Americans appear to agree with him. A just-released poll by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency showed that nearly eight in 10 Americans favor probation, restitution and community service over prison for ''nonserious, nonviolent, nonsexual'' offenders. McDonough, who calls himself a pragmatist, said that ultimately the most powerful winds steering reform are financial. ''I think the recession probably will bring the pendulum swing to its highest point and it will start to swing the other way,'' he said. ``Legislators don't want to spend that much money.''
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