Friday, December 2, 2011

Florida Conservatives Understand the Need for Reform

Right on Crime, the conservative criminal justice reform project based out of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, has been advocating sound reforms around the country since its launch last year. The group’s “Statement of Principles” has been signed by conservative heavyweights like Grover Norquist, Bill Bennett, and even the current frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination, former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Interestingly, Right on Crime is “Florida-heavy.” For instance, the following notable Florida conservatives and business leaders have signed the Statement of Principles:

  • Jeb Bush, Former Governor
  • Allan Bense, Former Speaker of the Florida House
  • Richard Doran, Former Florida Attorney General
  • Barney Bishop, President and CEO of Associated Industries of Florida
  • Dominic Calabro, President of Florida TaxWatch
  • J. Robert McClure III, President and CEO of the James Madison Institute
  • Allison DeFoor, Former Chair of the Florida Republican Party, former Sheriff of Monroe County and former candidate for Lieutenant Governor Former Chair of Gov. Bush’s Ex-Offender Task Force Vicki Lukis
  • Tom Slade, Former Chair of the Florida Republican Party
The number of Florida signatories is no coincidence. Put plainly, Florida’s criminal justice system is broken. Florida taxpayers are paying far too much and receiving far too little in return.

Take Florida’s drug laws, for instance. For too long, Florida has relied too heavily on incarceration to solve its drug problem. Yet despite harsh mandatory minimum sentences, Florida’s drug usage rate has remained fairly constant, and in some areas has become dramatically worse. For instance, Florida adopted mandatory minimum sentences for prescription drug trafficking in 1999. In 2000, a year later, 869 people died of opiate-related overdoses. In 2009, a decade into Florida’s experiment with those mandatory minimums, that number was 2,905. Between 2003 and 2009, the death rate from Oxycodone overdoses in Florida increased 246%. If anything is clear from that data, it is that mandatory minimum sentences have utterly failed to stop Florida’s prescription drug problem.

Meanwhile, Florida’s prison population has skyrocketed, along with its Corrections budget. In 1993 Florida housed 53,000 prisoners. In 2007 the prison population had ballooned to 97,000. Today it stands above 100,000. In other words, Florida has nearly doubled its prison population in twenty years. Our incarceration rate is 26% higher than the national average, and we have the fastest growing prison population in the country. It’s no surprise, then, that Florida’s Corrections budget is nearly $2.5 billion annually. Worse, Florida’s Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability estimates that Florida’s prison population will hit 115,000 by 2015. According to OPPAGA, “The projected increase of 15,000 inmates by 2015 would require building nine prisons at a total cost of over $862 million. Each new prison adds $27 million to the department’s annual operating budget.” This, while Florida faces multi-billion dollar deficits year after year, and after legislators have already cut billions from the state budget.

Florida Senate President Mike Haridopolos recently said in the Gainesville Sun, “I think I speak for the majority of Floridians when I say that I would much rather spend taxpayer money on our state’s education system, road projects, health care or economic development than I would on our state’s prison system.”

He’s right. And judging from the number of Florida conservatives and business leaders who have signed the Right on Crime Statement of Principles, he’s not alone.

What can be done? How can conservatives protect public safety, reduce recidivism and return millions of dollars to Florida taxpayers?

That sounds like a fine reason to check FAMM’s blog next week. 

Greg Newburn, the author of this post, is the Director of FAMM's Florida Project. Find out more about FAMM’s work in Florida here. You can also follow FAMM’s Florida Project on Twitter: @FloridaFAMM.