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Floridas Flawed Prison System Needs Reform


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Nowadays Florida towns and cities are struggling to cope with the special services needed by this ever-growing number of new parolees returning home each year.

America's lock-'em-up drug laws are keeping this merry-go-round spinning faster and faster. Nationally, the portion of inmates leaving state prisons after serving time for non-violent drug offenses has shot up from 11 percent in 1985 to 37 percent in 2005.

Here is how this trend plays out in Florida:

Florida prisons held only 20,400 men and women in 1980. By 2006 that number was 89,000.

Today Florida's incarceration rate -- the number of state prisoners per 100,000 population -- is 492. In 1980 it was only 208.

While the enforcement of federal and state drug laws has not lowered the availability or use of illegal drugs, those laws have done more harm than good for drug users, taxpayers and local communities.

Instead of dealing with drug abuse as a health issue in education and treatment centers, drug laws have sent thousands of otherwise law-abiding citizens to prison.

But prison time can backfire.

Life behind bars is an ideal environment for non-violent inmates to become socially alienated and to learn new criminal skills. Upon their release, many drug users are likely to pose a greater risk to society than when they entered prison.

Florida's prison merry-go-round would stop turning if not for the generous contribution of more than $1.4 billion each year from state taxpayers.

And nationally it costs much more to enforce drugs laws that don't do what lawmakers say they were intended to do.

The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws in Washington estimates that U.S. taxpayers are spending more than $1 billion a year just to lock up 33,600 state, and 10,700 federal, marijuana offenders.

Most of these people were peaceful, productive citizens. They do not belong behind bars.

Once their prison phase ends, parolees face an uphill struggle as they try to put their lives back together. Trouble finding jobs and a place to live are common problems and force many ex-convicts to seek help from local agencies.

But instead of fixing the root cause of this problem, federal and state officials are turning to churches and social service agencies to salvage their failed policies. As one New York correctional officer remarked recently, "Our dump-'em-on-the-street with $40 is not working. We need help."

Faith-based service grants from Uncle Sam are already being used by communities to cope with newly released inmates. The Council of State Governments, the National Association of Counties and the Urban Institute are all addressing reentry issues. And the push is on to get United Way and Big Sister/Big Brother organizations involved.

Trouble is, these efforts address only a symptom of the problem, not the problem itself.

What to do? About one-half of all U.S. inmates are non-violent offenders. Would it not make a lot more sense to solve the returning prisoner crisis by drastically cutting the number of non-violent people cycled through Florida's prisons and sent back to their hometowns every year?

Policy-makers in Tallahassee need to stop sending non-violent offenders to prison and increase the use of non-prison punishments, including treatment for drug abusers and support services for other non-violent offenders.

This would drastically slow down Florida's prison merry-go-round, save taxpayers a lot of money, and shrink by up to one-half the number of ex-inmates headed back to local communities each year.

Source: Pensacola News Journal (FL)
Copyright: 2007 Pennsacola News Journal
Contact: opinion@pensacolanewsjournal.com
Website: Home | pnj.com
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