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Business Community Joins Call for Fewer Prisons

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For years, a coalition of interests, including clergy, advocates for people with substance abuse problems, minorities and just plain old-school liberals have argued – mostly in vain – that locking up more and more prisoners for longer periods wasn't necessarily the best way to fight crime.

Politicians, meanwhile, heard loud and clear from voters that they were fed up with crime, and have, for the better part of the last decade anyway, mostly preferred a lock 'em up approach.

But now something has changed, and the calls for trying to help prisoners who leave the system avoid coming back by giving them substance abuse treatment and other rehabilitative help are getting a new hearing.

What's different? Money, mainly.

During the last couple of decades, “we had surpluses” in state coffers, said Barney Bishop, president of Associated Industries of Florida, one of the state's largest business lobbies, and a surprising new voice calling for a halt to prison building. Bishop was one of an eclectic group of movers and shakers in Florida that signed a letter to Gov. Charlie Crist on Wednesday calling for reducing prison populations.

“To build a prison that costs $100 million - just to build it – we don't have that kind of money any more,” Bishop said in an interview this week.

And on Wednesday, Attorney General and Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill McCollum, who has a solid reputation as tough on crime, joined the chorus, saying he looked forward to working with the letter writers to address the issue.

Allison DeFoor, the former Monroe County sheriff-turned lieutenant governor candidate-turned environmental lobbyist-turned Episcopal priest, is one of the driving forces behind the call for a change in prison culture – toward more efforts to lower recidivism in an effort to reduce the number of people behind bars. He wrote an article urging the change in the most recent Journal of the James Madison Institute, which DeFoor notes is no liberal think tank, quite the opposite.

DeFoor, a Republican, was also the driving force behind faith and character-based prisons, which have been credited with reducing disciplinary problems and recidivism. For years, he's pushed for more focus on rehabilitation for prisoners from a religious perspective. But now, he's content to use the economic downturn to bring additional advocates on board. He's worked out that it could reduce the number of people returning to prison over a three year period by 8,000.

“That's four new prisons at $100 million each to build and $30 million a year to run,” DeFoor said. “I believe there's a God. But I'm sure that those are real numbers.”

The group that wrote the letter to Crist, in addition to members of the business community and DeFoor, was also signed by a former Corrections Secretary, Jim McDonough, possibly blunting any criticism that might be offered that outsiders simply don't know how difficult it would be to drastically reduce the number of prisoners.

Other signatories included representatives of the AARP, the Florida Chamber Foundation, the Florida Catholic Conference, several mental health advocates, and giving the letter some heft, three former state attorneys general: Richard Doran, Jim Smith and Bob Butterworth. Many of the signers, including Smith and McDonough, are Republicans.

“The current system leads to too many non-violent individuals being incarcerated, too many prisons needing to be built at astounding public cost, too many young people moving from the juvenile justice system into the adult justice system, and too many ex-offenders going back to prison because, while behind bars, they received little or no job training, mental health and substance abuse treatment, and the necessary life-skills tools to legitimately re-enter civil society,” the group wrote.

The group is asking Crist to call to order an advisory council that was created after the 2008 legislative session and support putting money into substance abuse, education and re-entry programs rather than building new facilities.

A spokesman for Crist said Wednesday that the governor was reviewing the document, but didn't have a comment on it yet.

McCollum weighed in Wednesday with a letter to the Collins Center for Public Policy, which is helping spearhead the move.

“I look forward to a partnership to work on these issues, particularly the urgent need to decrease Florida's recidivism rate for repeat criminal offenders, which is nearly 50 percent in five years,” McCollum wrote.

The group behind the move isn't naïve about the political reality of advocating what may sound to some like easing up on criminals.

“There are still a lot of folks who are strongly committed to lock them up and throw away the key,” said Tony Carvajal, executive vice president of the Florida Chamber Foundation, and one of the signers of the letter. “The Florida Chamber is not saying 'Let people out of prison before they've done their time.' What we are saying is, 'While they're in there let's improve the process.'”

The chairman of the Senate committee that would decide whether to put more money into new prisons, Sen. Victor Crist. R-Tampa, wasn't available for comment Wednesday. Last year the Legislature didn't pay for any new prisons though projects already in the works were paid for.

Several people pushing for more diversion programs and calling for a reduction in prison spending said the resistance has come from the House.

The House's criminal justice budget writer, Rep. Sandy Adams, R-Orlando, disagreed with that notion, saying the Legislature has been open to new approaches to incarceration. She pointed to a couple of bills that passed this year, including one that tells schools not to refer kids to state juvenile justice officials for minor crimes.

“The Legislature has been trying to address these issues - but in a responsible way,” Adams said.

Meaning? “Meaning at the end of the day you still have to put people in prison,” Adams said. “I don't make decisions politically, I make them based on reality.”

AIF's Bishop also tried to make it clear in an interview that releasing hardened criminals isn't part of anyone's idea – just trying to divert some who might be able to be dealt with in other ways and some who can be helped to not re-offend.

“Does it make sense to put everybody in prison?” asked Bishop. “As for the bad asses, let's incarcerate them. When you put a low level druggie or a white collar criminal into prison, that bed is costing the same thing as if you're housing a murderer.”

“We don't want them putting any new prisons on line,” Bishop said. “We (businesses) provide a lot of dollars to state government. And we're not getting the best bang for the buck.”

And it's business talking here, so there's also another consideration.

“They could be in the workforce,” Bishop said. “And they could become productive people.”

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