Michael Mayo | News Columnist May 13, 2008
Crime might not pay, but we keep paying for criminals.
Especially for offenders in the never-ending War on Drugs.
In a lean budget year that will put the crimp on public schools, universities and health care, the state's prison system keeps pumping iron. The upcoming budget includes $309 million to build three prisons. That's in addition to the $2.5 billion the Department of Corrections gets for annual operating expenses.
The numbers are startling. Five years ago, Florida's prison population was 77,316. By August, the Department of Corrections expects the figure to top 100,000, an increase of 28 percent from 2003.
That far outpaces the general population growth.
It would be one thing if other big states have had similar prison growth. But the two states with larger prison populations, Texas and California, had shrinkage last year. So did New York.
A March report by the Pew Center on the States found that 2.3 million Americans are incarcerated, one out of every 99 adults, the highest rate among industrialized nations. The report had a subsection on Florida titled "A Case Study in Growth."
With almost 100,000 in prisons and another 64,000 locked up in county jails, Florida's adult incarceration rate is even higher. Florida has an adult population just under 14 million.
"Drug policies over the last 20 years account for the growth more than anything," said Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based criminal-justice research organization that advocates alternatives to incarceration.
At 20.7 percent, drug offenders make up the biggest segment of the state prison population, according to the state. Of the 3,307 people sent to prison from Broward last year, 537 (16.2 percent) were for cocaine possession, according to the Broward State Attorney's Office.
Broward sent more people to prison last year than every county except Hillsborough (4,000).
Drop by the Broward County Courthouse on any given day and you'll see a steady stream of defendants put away for nonviolent drug crimes, including possession of cocaine, residue-laden crack pipes and painkillers without prescriptions.
Jeff Marcus, chief of the felony division for Broward State Attorney Mike Satz, said all drug offenders sent to prison have prior felony convictions and first-timers are given the chance to enter treatment programs in drug court or jail.
He said many drug offenders sent to prison also have violent felonies, theft or burglary on their rap sheets.
"These are people who have to be taken off the streets," Marcus said.
Florida's prison population has also grown because of stricter policies. Starting in 1995, criminals had to serve 85 percent of their sentences. And there's been zero tolerance for parole violations.
"Crime in Florida has dropped substantially during this period," The Pew report said, "but it has fallen as much or more in some states that have not grown their prison systems, or even shrunk them, such as New York."
"It's a huge business," said Fort Lauderdale defense attorney Bill Gelin, whose JAABlog Web site has been critical of strict drug prosecutions in Broward. "It's a big employer, and there are powerful interests behind it."
It's also easy politics.
Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein calls the drug war "an abysmal failure" and said it's time Satz shows "better discretion" in certain drug cases. "The easiest arrest for police to make is for drug possession," he said.
Florida spends almost $20,000 a year on each prisoner. Mauer said changing the approach to the drug war to de-emphasize prisons makes long-term economic sense, but it won't be easy.
"It's like trying to close a military base," Mauer said.
"These prisons are mainly in rural areas, and a whole economy sprouts around them."
There's got to be a better way.