Reentry Effort for Drug Offenders a Start, But Short Funds

prison-budget.jpgFollowing below is a republication in entirety of a timely editorial that appeared in the March 19, 2012 issue of one of South Florida’s major newspapers, the Sun Sentinel. The editorial clearly portrays that progress aimed at reducing Florida’s ex-inmate recidivism is underway, but because of budget cuts not yet a slam dunk.-ED

Prison Reentry Effort a Start

If nothing else, give state Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, and state Rep. Ari Porth, D-Coral Springs, credit for persistence. It took two legislative sessions, but the pair managed to pass a bill creating a re-entry program for non-violent drug offenders. The legislation survived opposition from the tough-on-crime crowd and deserves Gov. Rick Scott’s signature, the final step toward becoming law.

The bill requires the Florida Department of Corrections to develop and administer a program to divert nonviolent offenders from state facilities. The goal is to shorten prison sentences by offering community based sustance abuse treatment and educational programs. Doing so pairs punishment with a greater shot at rehabilitation and reducing recividism. The end results are, potentially, a functional ex-inmate and significant prison budget savings.

Florida’s prison population is one of the nation’s highest. Unlike a majority of states surveyed in a 2010 Pew Center of the States report, the number of Florida inmates is increasing. State lawmakers have grappled with ways to lower the prison population and reduce incarceration costs, including the ill-fated privatization effort that would have turned state facilities in the southern half of Florida over to private firms.

To put it simply, it’s cheaper to treat specific nonviolent offenders in community treatment programs than behind the bars of a state peniteniary. Under the bill approved by the Legislature, inmates who have served at least half of their original sentence would become eligible for the re-entry program. The department estimates 337 inmates would be eligible in the first year of the new program.

The revamped re-entry program is essential. It’s the first of many needed steps state and local authorities must take if Florida hopes to establish a consistent system to turn ex-offenders into productive citizens once they leave prison.

Florida’s lawmakers are responsible, too, for spinning the costly revolving door of prison recividism. Budget shortfalls have prompted Gov. Scott and lawmakers to take a knife to many worthwhile health and social service programs, including some that help ex-offenders embark on leading productive lives outside of prison.

Unfortunately, the legislation requires DOC to operate the new program with available resources, a challenge to say the least. Currently, DOC is shedding roughly 1,800 jobs under the new state budget, which starts July 1. Amid those kinds of cuts in programs and personnel, chances for a viable re-entry program remain iffy at best.

Ex-offenders need structured support — along with places to live and jobs — to make successful transitions and avoid a return to prison life. It benefits taxpayers to develop programs that help ex-offenders overcome the addictions that landed them in prison, as well as the stigmas, and government sanctions, that come with a criminal record.

The new re-entry effort is a start. It must be have the support of far greater resources than appear accessible now if this effort is to succeed.

Reprinted with permission from the Sun Sentinel.


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