Ewan Watt, Jordan Richardson: Lessons in lockup — what Florida can learn from Texas - Florida Politics

Ewan Watt, Jordan Richardson: Lessons in lockup — what Florida can learn from Texas

Since 1970, the size of Florida’s prison population has grown by more than 1,000 percent, and its corrections system is now the third largest in the nation.

Under the state’s rigid mandatory minimum laws, more people are being sent to prison for a longer amount of time, with an annual average cost of $20,553 per inmate.

Though each state faces its own unique challenges, Floridians would do well to look to its southern neighbor, Texas, for inspiration on how to think creatively about reform.

A decade ago, leaders in Texas were faced with the daunting prospect of spending billions to construct new prisons to house the state’s exploding inmate population. But they took a different path by offering alternatives to incarceration, providing rehabilitation services for drug addiction and creating new pathways to employment.

Texas closed three facilities, saving $1.5 billion in construction costs, and $340 million in annual maintenance. The Texas model has since inspired other states like South Carolina, Georgia, Utah, and Oklahoma to reform their criminal justice systems.

While these Texas-inspired reforms have helped both cut crime and produce a windfall for taxpayers, Florida has remained wedded to a faltering criminal justice system that’s excessively punitive and costly with minimal public safety benefits.

Mandatory minimum laws require judges to impose a minimum prison term if a defendant has a criminal record or is convicted of an offense that meets “certain statutory criteria.”

While the original intent of Florida’s mandatory minimums was to equip law enforcement to pursue drug “kingpins,” the outcome shows something different. A new study by The James Madison Institute in Tallahassee and the Reason Foundation notes that Floridians can face 15 years in prison and a $500,000 fine for trafficking just 25 grams of oxycodone.

The report also reveals that 1,690 individuals “who have no violent incarceration history and are not currently serving a prison term for a violent offense” are incarcerated for offenses related to hydrocodone or oxycodone trafficking.

These sentences not only fail to deter crime, but — at an average cost of $20,553 per inmate per year — they are also extremely costly to the taxpayer. One solution that has been implemented in Georgia and Oklahoma is empowering judges to diverge from the mandatory minimum if certain mitigating factors exist. This move ensures that offenders are treated on an individual basis rather than with a one-size-fits-all sentence.

A person’s ability to find and maintain gainful employment is a strong indicator of whether he or she will remain out of the criminal justice system. Unfortunately, Florida has an environment that often makes it illegal for former offenders to find work unless they have completed thousands of hours of training and paid steep fines—even to become a barber or construction worker.

According to the Institute for Justice, Florida has the fourth-most burdensome licensing regime in the nation, which raises prices for consumers and makes it more difficult for former inmates to get jobs and contribute to society.

A recent Arizona State University study shows that excessive licensing regulations like Florida’s increase recidivism. If the government makes it illegal for someone to become a taxpayer, illicit activity will seem more attractive to that person. Thus, overhauling Florida’s occupational licensing regulations for all is not just an economic necessity, but a public safety one.

The good news is that Florida voters are supportive of the types of reforms necessary to improve the system. Almost 70 percent of voters in Florida agree that “our prisons house too many individuals,” and 74 percent agree that “we spend too much money” incarcerating nonviolent offenders.

Like Texas and other neighboring states that have considered reforms, Florida could begin to tackle such challenges with a criminal justice task force to identify opportunities that would improve its system by lowering both costs for taxpayers and crime rates.

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Ewan Watt is the director of external relations at the Charles Koch Institute. Jordan Richardson is a senior policy analyst at the Charles Koch Institute.

 

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