Pensacola, Florida
Tuesday November 20th 2018

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Outtakes—Bold Idea for 2017

By Rick Outzen

Florida TaxWatch has been pushing for criminal justice reform for the past several years. Our state has one of the largest prison populations in the nation, and corrections expenditures have continued to take a larger percentage of state and county budgets.

The Escambia Board of County Commissioners spends $35.8 million on detention. It is the largest department under its control. Five years ago, the detention budget was $29.7 million. The county is set to spend about $120 million on a new county jail, the largest single capital expenditure in its history.

It’s time Escambia County look at becoming the state’s criminal justice reform county by seeking out help from Florida TaxWatch and the Florida Legislature. The “tough on crime” policies of the 1980s and 90s haven’t made our county safer. Instead, they have filled our jail with non-violent criminals who have become trapped in the system.

The two primary drivers of growth in the criminal justice system: over-incarceration and recidivism.

Overincarceration means putting some people in prison who should not be there. People are incarcerated for longer than they need to be, and tax dollars are diverted away from other services and capital needs.

Recidivism means that too many of our offenders return to jail. For the state prison system, it has only decreased 7 percent since 2006. Almost 8,500 of the inmates released from prison each year return within three years. I suspect the recidivism numbers for Escambia County are similar.

This past summer, Florida TaxWatch published its recommendations to reduce incarceration cost and lower crime. Many could have an immediate impact on Escambia County if we adopted them.

We need to expand the use of forensic mental health diversion programs. Sheriff David Morgan has described the county jail as “largest mental health facility.” The mentally ill comprise the fastest growing subpopulation within Florida’s prisons and jails, according to Florida TaxWatch.

Other Florida TaxWatch recommendations that could have an impact in Escambia are:
• Reduce penalties for and divert “driving while license suspended” offenders;
• Restore judicial discretion for specific mandatory minimum cases;
• Develop risk/needs assessments and cost-analysis tools to be used at the time of sentencing;
• Increase the amount of usable gain time for nonviolent inmates;
• Lengthen the period of eligibility for and expand transitional work-release programs; and
• Promote strategies that improve released offenders’ employment opportunities.

Implementation of these recommendations will require the cooperation of the county, law enforcement, state attorney’s office, and the judges. The state legislature could help create the pilot program and facilitate the pilot program.

What I do know is what we are doing now isn’t working.