George Gibbs Center for Economic Prosperity

Before, dur⁠i⁠ng, af⁠t⁠er pr⁠i⁠son: How Flor⁠i⁠da should reform cr⁠i⁠m⁠i⁠nal jus⁠t⁠⁠i⁠ce

By: Sal Nuzzo / 2018

In Florida, about one of every four people in prison will wind up back in prison soon after being released. We Floridians bear the cost of their new crimes, as well as the roughly $20,000 per year it costs to keep them in prison again. With almost 100,000 people in Florida prisons, this ends up making a big impact on lives and state budgets.

Dealing with recidivism is a serious challenge, one closely tied to figuring out who should and should not go to prison in the first place. A brilliant University of Michigan study followed criminals in the Texas system and found that time in prison actually increases the odds a criminal will commit crime again, and also increases the odds they will be unemployed and on public assistance.

And a Vera Institute of Justice study concluded that, at some point, more incarceration stops working and “continued growth in incarceration will prevent considerably fewer, if any, crimes than past increases did and will cost taxpayers substantially more to achieve.” As well, the longest sentences result in an aged prison population, which costs taxpayers astronomically more, as many of these inmates have chronic health problems that are exacerbated by age.

If Florida wants to reduce crime and not just punish criminals after the fact, we have to address every facet of how we approach criminal justice. There is no silver bullet that will solve recidivism. It requires first a “continuum of care” approach that evaluates those going into the criminal-justice system right at the beginning, and works throughout their time in the system to match them with the right interventions, programs and support most likely to solve their particular problems and meet their particular needs to avoid going back to crime. In other words, you have to work with them before, during and after their time in prison. The vast majority will exit prison at some point; whether they succeed or fail to become productive members of society depends to a large extent on how well-prepared they are when they get out.

Fortunately, the Legislature got off to a good start on this in February. The House approved a reform bill, and the Senate is advancing a companion bill, that set up an evidence-based approach to reducing recidivism with a pilot project that tackles the process of entering someone into the criminal-justice system. The bills would require the Department of Corrections to create an assessment tool based on a wide range of data that would evaluate a person charged with a crime to help prosecutors, judges, correctional officials and parole officers consider the punishment and programming for that particular person that would most likely turn them away from returning to crime.

This system would be tested on a trial basis starting in 2019 in Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties. The pilot program would run for three years and be evaluated for effectiveness along the way.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, author of the Senate bill, told reporters this is part of “a deep dive into criminal-justice reform.” To be certain, getting people who have been convicted of crime on to the right track from the start is a vital first step in attempting to reduce recidivism. And it would be an important part of Florida improving the outcomes of our criminal-justice system, not just for the benefit of ex-convicts, but for all Floridians.

Adrian Moore is vice president at Reason Foundation and lives in Sarasota. Sal Nuzzo is the vice president of policy at The James Madison Institute in Tallahassee.