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Observations and musings on Jacksonville Politics

Are Prisons Breaking Our Budget?

Interesting reality check from Florida’s embrace of mandatory sentencing guidelines.

Everyone in Florida government is singing the Budget Blues. But underlying the melody is a drumbeat many state leaders profess not to hear: The sound of countless prison doors slamming shut. Like it or not, the state’s incarceration policies have a direct and growing impact on the current budget crisis.

AN EXPENSIVE HABIT

Florida’s prison system is growing faster than that of any other state. According to a report by the Pew Charitable Trust, corrections (which includes state prisons and probation) consumed 9.3 percent of the state budget in 2007. The only states to allocate a greater portion of their budget were Oregon and Michigan.

And that only accounts for direct prison and probation spending — it doesn’t encompass increased public support for the families prisoners leave behind, or the burden on city and county governments that have to build additional jail space and employ more public-safety workers. Meanwhile, the state — whose daily average prison population is projected to top 100,000 this year — will need to build new facilities this year or face overcrowding. Department of Corrections Secretary Walter McNeil has requested $439.2 million in the coming budget year to add capacity.

Few people are pushing for dangerous murderers and rapists to be released. But neither can they dispute that Florida’s incarceration spree occurred at a time when crime rates were actually trending downward. Florida hasn’t become a more dangerous place to live, it’s just become one that has become politically addicted to the idea of increasingly harsh punishments.

HANDCUFFING JUDGES

One of the more important checks against legislative excess has been hobbled. Lawmakers have significantly eroded the ability of judges to determine fair, justifiable sentences for a wide range of crimes.

Florida, like many states, adopted sentencing guidelines as a way to keep sentences relatively fair across geographic and racial lines. After sentencing guidelines passed in 1983, courts used a “score sheet” that added points for the particulars of an offense, the criminal background of an offender and other relevant considerations. The resulting score was then matched to a “guideline” range of prison and/or probation time — but judges could depart from the guidelines if they found good reason to do so. That approach used fairness as a base line, giving judges the ability to tailor sentences to circumstances.

Read the rest of the editorial here.

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