TALLAHASSEE — Florida’s taxpayers are saving millions of dollars because fewer felons are returning to prison after being released, the system’s chief said Monday.
Department of Corrections Secretary Michael D. Crews also said he supports proposals to increase facilities that focus on preventing inmates from reverting to crime but opposes letting private companies run them.
Recidivism has been trending down for years. Inmates returning to prison within three years of release dropped from
33.8 percent in 2003 to 27.6 percent in 2008, Crews said.
He credited law enforcement as well as the prison system for that decline. Florida’s crime rate is at a 41-year low, and overall prison admissions declined to 32,279 in the budget year ending
June 30. That compares to nearly 35,000 the year before and 41,000 in 2007-08.
Joining Crews and law enforcement officials at a news conference was ex-prisoner Eric Smallridge. He was released last year after serving more than nine years in prison for drunken driving manslaughter in the deaths of two 20-year-old women.
Smallridge, who helped tutor other inmates while he was locked up, agreed that the focus on preventing recidivism before inmates are released is working.
“I hope that’s what the trend is going to move towards ... not washing your hands of a convicted felon too quickly,” Smallridge said.
Education is the state’s leading anti-recidivism strategy along with boosting substance abuse and mental health treatment. Crews said the effort also includes such simple things as ensuring inmates have an identification card when they are released so they can get a job and find a place to live.
His department, meanwhile, is undergoing a cultural change.
“Historically in our agency it has been about locking them up, turning them out and hoping for the best when they get out,” Crews said. “I think we’ve all seen that just does not work.”
The state budget that Gov. Rick Scott proposed last week would use $21.2 million of the savings from falling recidivism to pay $1,000 bonuses to guards and probation officers and $500 to other prison workers.
Scott also wants to activate one of three recently built prisons, which never opened due to the falling prison population, as a re-entry center. He’s asking the Legislature for
$5.4 million to open the facility in Gadsden County just west of Tallahassee.
A group with strong business ties called the Florida Smart Justice Alliance also is advocating opening the other two new prisons in Miami-Dade and Baker counties as re-entry facilities and outsourcing all three to private operators.
“The thought of opening these centers I fully support,” Crews said. “Having said that, I fully support the Department of Corrections running and managing those facilities.”
Private entities and volunteers already are contributing to anti-recidivism efforts, and the Gadsden center is envisioned as test bed, where lessons can be learned and serve as a model when the other two facilities eventually are opened, Crews said.
“Down the road when we go that path maybe there’s a partnership there,” he said. “Maybe we see that the Department of Corrections provides the security aspect for those and maybe there is an opportunity for some of the privates to come in and deliver some of the programs.”
Smallridge, 34, finished his business management degree at the University of West Florida in Pensacola while out on bond before being convicted for the fatal crash in suburban Gulf Breeze. He’s now working for Goodwill Industries in Tallahassee.
In prison he helped other inmates who were taking college courses or trying to pass GED tests. He said employers should consider ex-felons for jobs despite the state’s high unemployment rate.
“For a convicted felon to be given a minimum wage job, I think that actually means more to them than it would maybe the lay person,” Smallridge said.