George Gibbs Center for Economic Prosperity

Ed⁠i⁠⁠t⁠or⁠i⁠al: Ja⁠i⁠l ⁠i⁠sn’⁠t⁠ always an answer

By: The James Madison Institute / 2016

After Nov. 8, Santa Rosa residents will bid farewell to four-term Sheriff Wendell Hall. He’s been an impressive lawman and his leadership will be missed.

Though we’ll have much more about his career as his latest term comes to a close, we’d like to focus on one bit of his legacy: A work-release center for low-level criminals.

During a tour of the center earlier this month, the Pensacola News Journal’s Kevin Robinson gave us a behind-the-scenes look at the center and what we found is impressive.

As Kevin reported, the program allows some low-risk offenders to work during their sentence so they can cover court costs and support their families. At the same time, Second Chance Outreach, Re-entry and Education Development Inc., shares space in the center and “provides housing, meals, job training, employment services, education and counseling to recently released offenders.”

Of the 15 men in the program, most have been convicted of minor crimes such as drunken driving or passing bad checks. These are men who are not violent criminals.

“A lot of them are businessmen, they’re carpenters, they’re workers, and if you lock them up they’re going to lose their jobs,” Hall said. “We want to try and keep them productive so they can support themselves and their families.”

It’s a noble goal to keep families together and to remind the participants they are being punished, not their families. It’s the right balance between law enforcement and compassion.

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On Thursday, Kevin Robinson also reported on a program that’s determined to help ex-convicts become self-sufficient as they return to society. ReEntry Alliance of Pensacola Inc., is looking for homes to rent to the recently released men and women.

Kevin reported “Rick Dye, executive director of REAP, said the organization is willing to rent the homes ‘as is’ and use its own resources to bring the buildings up to code. Dye said the program creates affordable housing for ex-offenders, generates a revenue stream for the homeowners and ultimately increases the values of homes and neighborhoods.”

Face it: People who serve their time or get paroled need a place to live. The option of homelessness is not practical nor helpful as a tool to prevent repeat offenders. We look forward to seeing how this program helps get former criminals back on their feet.

As a nation, we must find better ways to punish people who break the law. It costs thousands of dollars per year to house men and women in prison. As the population grows, a certain percentage will find themselves in trouble and behind bars. It’s unworkable and fiscally irresponsible to continue to “lock them up and throw away the key” without alternatives for those who aren’t a danger to society.

In a well-written treatise on incarceration, Francisco Gonzalez, vice of advancement for The James Madison Institute, wrote nearly a year ago that we have to find alternatives to “three hots and a cot.”

Here is a portion of his essay:

“Here in the United States — the land of the free — more than 2.2 million people are incarcerated in our federal, state, and local prisons and jails. That represents a 500 percent increase over the past 30 years. It also means that roughly one out of every 100 American adults is in prison or jail. When you add in those on some form of community correction probation or parole, roughly one in 33 adults is under some type of control by the criminal justice system. And if those statistics weren’t shocking enough, Florida has a rate 33 percent higher than the national average, with 524 adults (per 100,000) in prison.

Dangerous offenders need to be removed from society. The safety of our homes and neighborhoods often depends on this. However, our overreliance on incarceration may be, in many cases, failing us. Unnecessary or too lengthy sentences in Florida’s prisons can carry with them heavy costs and unintended consequences of exacerbating recidivism. Prison and jail time is costly to taxpayers and, in some cases, introduces lower-level, nonviolent offenders to a life of more serious crime by mixing them in with more dangerous criminal offenders. Our goal in the realm of public safety should be preventing and reducing crime, reducing recidivism rates, rehabilitating criminal offenders, and helping ex-offenders adjust to being productive citizens and rejoining civil society.”

Conservatives in the county should embrace the value of the work-release program. It’s less expensive than a jail cell and keeps families “off the dole.” Besides, do we want a generation of offenders to give up and turn back to crime to survive?

Those living outside the county boundaries should look to the work-release center as a template for an alternative way to have men and women serve their sentences at home, not in an expensive room at the “Graybar Hotel.”