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Martin Dyckman: Drop in crime bad news for Florida's private prison biz

One of the truthful boasts in Gov. Rick Scott’s curiously brief speech to the Legislature last week may not have been good news to all who heard it.

“We are at a 43-year low in our crime rate,” he said.

In fact, by 2013 crime in Florida had fallen 60 percent from its high point in 1988, which was 10 percent better than the national decline.

But there are some to whom this might be a dark lining in a silver cloud.

Said only in passing, Scott’s remark begged for elaboration. Might now be the time to send fewer people to prison and let more out? To divert some of the $2.2-billion corrections budget from punishment to prevention? To improve vocational education, enhance community policing and emphasize well-supervised probation?

Scott had nothing to say about any of that, or about the notorious scandals – violence, corruption, neglect, persecution of whistleblowers – that have plagued the overpopulated, underfinanced Department of Corrections during his administration. He eluded the media before anyone could ask.

He might argue that the falling crime rate simply proves the success of Florida’s spectacularly harsh criminal jurisprudence, and he might say, “Let’s keep it up.”

He would be wrong, but it would be reassuring to one of his pet special interests.

I’m referring to the private prison industry, which has lavished more than $5.2-million on the ruling Republican Party – and particularly on Scott – over the past 12 years. In the last campaign alone, its rewards for Republican political favors topped $1.5 million. In December, after the election, the Geo Group gave $90,000 to Scott’s personal political committee.

If you don’t think they have anything to fear from criminal justice reform, read their annual reports to the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The newest threat on their horizon is a dramatic finding: Mass incarceration in Florida and nationally reached the point of vanishing returns 13 years ago.

That report comes from the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law. Economists and criminal justice researchers analyzed 40 years of data from all 50 states and the 50 largest cities.

If their analysis is correct, Florida, which imprisons 38 percent more people than the national average, is spending far more than necessary to keep crime down. Worse than the expense is the waste of human lives that could be contributing to society outside prison fences.

Over the past four decades – some people blame the late Nelson Rockefeller’s presidential ambition for inciting it – the United States reacted to rising crime with harsher sentencing, restriction or abolition of parole, and other draconian measures. Now, our 5 percent of the world’s population includes 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. We have becomes the Gulag nation.

Crime has many causes, notably including poverty and the demographics of age. Many reasons, including an older population and data-driven policing, go into the falling crime rates as well. The authors of the Brennan report acknowledge that they are not fully understood. What the data do show, however, is that mass incarceration is no longer one of the factors.

“Today, almost half of state prisoners are convicted of non-violent crimes,” the Brennan researchers write. “More than half of federal prisoners are serving time for drug offenses. The system is no longer prioritizing arresting, prosecuting and incarcerating the most dangerous or habitual offenders….We have incarcerated those we should not have.”

The crime waves of the 1980s, feverishly exploited by the media and politicians, set Florida to building prisons as fast as new laws could fill them. The Legislature abolished parole for crimes committed after 1983, replacing controlled release with sentencing guidelines that leave little leeway for humane judicial discretion. It decreed mandatory minimums for some crimes and harsher ones for repeat offenders. Prison administrators lost most of their ability to reward well-behaved inmates with time off their sentences. Since 1995, by law all inmates must serve at least 85 percent of their time.

While Florida’s overall population doubled, its prison population quadrupled. Yet the people who made – and still make – the laws rarely seem to ask whether they are working well or wastefully.

Perhaps the Brennan report will inspire them. If not, perhaps the Koch brothers can. Yes, those extremely right-wing capitalists are working with liberal groups like the ACLU to reform and humanize criminal justice.

Running for governor in 1994, Treasurer (and former legislator) Tom Gallagher advocated amending the constitution to incorporate the 85 per cent rule.

It would cost an estimated $1.1-billion just to build the necessary new prisons. When he visited the St. Petersburg Times editorial board, I asked him whether that money should be spent on good vocational education instead.

“Not until we have the punishment there on the other end,” he said. He maintained that youths at risk wouldn’t go to the schools unless they knew “they’ll spend life in the pen” for choosing crime instead.

The prison system’s 2014 annual report shows what such misjudgments have done to Florida.

Though only 16.7 percent of all Floridians are African-American, 48 percent of state prison inmates and 49 percent of those sentenced for drug offenses are black. Among the 7,495 inmates received last year who were 25 or younger, 63 percent were black.

There is no plausible excuse for that.

Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the St. Petersburg Times. He lives in western North Carolina. Column courtesy of Context Florida.     

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