(Note: This commentary article appeared in the Tampa Bay Times on July 11, 2013; the Sarasota Herald-Tribune on July 15, 2013; and the Tallahassee Democrat on July 23, 2013)
By Barney Bishop
A great risk in setting public policy is the tendency to overreact to an instance of bad luck or poor judgment that results in a media onslaught. Too often, poor policy is forced on the entire public as a result. Right now Florida’s criminal justice policymakers must take care to avoid such a mistake, one that would put our citizens and their wallets in harm’s way.
In the wake of significant problems at a single privately run work-release center in Pinellas County, there is talk of shutting down all such facilities, or at least those operated by private providers. The Florida Department of Corrections, Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature should resist this temptation. Lax oversight at a single center is a management issue that must be addressed, but not at the expense of public safety and proper stewardship of tax dollars. Floridians deserve better than a knee-jerk reaction that undermines an important public safety tool.
The hard reality is that more than 32,000 Florida inmates will get out of prison this year, three-quarters of them with little more than $50 and a bus ticket. In contrast, inmates who leave from work-release depart with positive work experience, marketable skills, savings accounts, state-issued identification cards and the skills to function in modern society. In addition, they pay child support, victim restitution, court costs and their own room and board. In short, they learn how to become responsible adults and begin a transformation from tax takers to taxpayers. Which would you rather have moving into your community?
Not surprisingly, research shows that inmates released from one of Florida’s 3,000 or so work-release beds are much less likely to be readmitted to prison than are inmates let straight out of prison. This means less crime, fewer victims and lower costs for taxpayers. Roughly half the state’s work-release beds are operated by private, nonprofit organizations that focus on rehabilitation and treatment.
While Florida locates most of its prisons in remote areas, work-release centers must be in larger communities because that’s where the jobs are. Of course, it’s also where neighborhoods are, and serious problems can arise when offenders are not sufficiently supervised. The answer, however, is sound management and rigorous oversight rather than a broad-brush condemnation of using private providers to assist in rehabilitating inmates.
An effective solution for supervision is electronic monitoring — what most people think of as ankle bracelets. They allow authorities to know where each inmate is at all times while giving inmates a very tangible reminder that they are always being “watched.”
The Florida Smart Justice Alliance strongly endorses the use of electronic monitoring and supported Gov. Scott’s budget recommendation to provide this technology for all work-release inmates. The Legislature provided only half of the governor’s recommended funding and mandated that the ankle bracelets first be used at private facilities. We believe this shortchanges Floridians who live in communities with publicly operated work release facilities. Fortunately, there is a solution.
As with many other technologies, rapid innovation has dramatically lowered the costs of electronic monitoring. If the state issues bids to take advantage of current competitive rates, we are confident the Department of Corrections will be able to put an ankle bracelet on every work-release inmate, and with newer technology that is much more advanced and foolproof than the existing technology.
Work-release is an essential and excellent resource, and the problems arising from a single center do not change that fact. Tens of thousands of inmates come out of our prisons every year, and it’s in the best interest of everyone that they be ready to succeed within the rules of society. The alternative is more crime, more victims and more tax dollars spent to reincarcerate the same individuals. We must resist the temptation to drop work-release as an effective instrument of rehabilitation, and we must not blame all private providers for the terrible mistakes of just one.
Barney Bishop III is the president and chief executive officer of the Florida Smart Justice Alliance, a statewide coalition of organizations committed to changes that make communities safer, save the taxpayers money and hold offenders accountable while helping them learn to live law-abiding lives.