There is a fast way to save big bucks on prisons, say a growing chorus of conservatives and liberals alike: Stop putting so many people behind bars.
As a whole, the United States imprisons 480 men, women and juveniles for every 100,000 citizens.
In Iran, the rate is 284.
In Cuba, it’s 510.
But in Florida, it’s 524.
Although private prisons are touted as a cure-all to Florida’s bloated corrections budget, deals promising taxpayers millions in savings have been based on dubious calculations and contrived formulas, an eight-month Palm Beach Post investigation found.
Hard-ball politics and back-room maneuvering have kept contracts coming even as a national track record of human rights violations dogs the state’s three prison operators.
Florida, meanwhile, continues to maintain the third-largest prison system in the country. It owes more than a half-billion dollars for prison construction.
The price tag for running those prisons: More than $2 billion this year alone.
“The big picture is that if you want to save lots of money, you need sentencing reform,” said Michael Hallet, founding chair of the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of North Florida.
Unexpectedly high costs of get-tough-on-crime laws are a key reason why such conservative luminaries as Jeb Bush, who while governor pushed hard for tough sentencing laws; anti-tax champion Grover Norquest; Newt Gingrich; Texas Gov. Rick Perry; and The Goldwater Institute have all lent their names to sentencing reform.
“They are saying ‘Let’s subject criminal justice to the same premises in other policy areas,’” said Greg Newburn, director of the Florida chapter of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a sentencing reform group.
“It’s asking the basic questions. Is it working? Is it efficient? Can we subject it to a basic cost-benefit analysis?”
Florida TaxWatch, the Tallahassee think tank, did just that in 2011. Among its findings: Keeping drug offenders behind bars cost the state more than $300 million in one year alone.
The price tag should have come as no surprise. Between 1990 and 2009, the average sentence length for a Florida drug offense grew by 194 percent, a study by the non-profit Pew Center on the States found, the steepest increase of any state.
Plenty of inmates are serving those longer sentences. For five straight years, the single largest group of people entering a Florida prison were there for a drug crime.
Many are behind bars, not because judges sought lengthy stints in prison, but because Florida’s mandatory minimum sentencing laws leave them no choice.
22 pills, 15 years
In 2009, Todd Hannigan took a six-pack of beer and a handful of his mother’s Vicodin and headed to a park in Central Florida. His plan was to commit suicide.
Police arrested Hannigan on an open container charge. When they discovered the 31 painkillers, the charge was upped to trafficking. An automatic 15-year sentence followed.
In fact, a Florida conviction for illegally possessing just seven tablets of hydrocodone, one of the most widely prescribed drugs in America, can trigger a mandatory prison sentence of at least three years — not for possession, but for trafficking.
As few as 22 of the pills can put someone away for 15 years on a trafficking charge, even if no sale took place.
Such small numbers of pills are more reflective of addicts, not traffickers, said Newburn, and some state lawmakers agree. Bills modifying sentencing for painkillers flew through state legislative committees last spring, only to die before any floor vote.
Had one bill passed, it’s estimated the new law could have emptied 595 prison beds and saved as much as $61 million over five years.
Without such reform, judges mete out sentences even they don’t agree with. “If there should be some change in the legislative framework that would result in early release … no one would be happier than I,” Orange County Circuit Judge Timothy Shea told Hannigan at his sentencing.
An appeals court ruling concluded that if Hannigan had been attempting suicide, sending him to prison for 15 years was “a gross injustice.”
But legislators, not judges, write sentencing laws, they said. Hannigan’s prison term was upheld.
118 years for drugs
In Palm Beach County, Shane McKenney faced equally harsh justice. An opiate addict and co-conspirator in the George brothers’ Palm Beach County pill mill empire, McKenney was found guilty of drug trafficking and racketeering.
He is now into the first year of a 118 year prison term. A stiff sentence might have been warranted in any case, but Florida’s mandatory minimum drug laws forced Circuit Court Judge Richard Oftedal’s hand: The 118 years was inappropriate, he said from the bench.
By contrast, one of the two brothers at the very top of the same notorious drug ring got 17 years. Chris George’s drug syndicate had raked in $40 million. Prosecutors believed it was linked to 50 overdose deaths.
But George, who agreed to a plea deal, was indicted and sentenced in federal court. Florida’s mandatory minimum rules didn’t apply.
Victimized wife imprisoned
Drug offenses aren’t the only laws getting a second look. Under Florida’s 10-20-Life law, anyone even holding a gun during certain felonies can get an automatic decade or more behind bars.
That has locked away violent criminals, but it also is responsible for lengthy prison terms for first-time offenders.
In North Florida, Marissa Alexander got 20 years after firing a warning shot into a wall. The mother of three said she was warding off threatening advances by an abusive husband.
The husband freely admitted to abuse. “I got five baby mamas and I put my hands on every last one of them except one,” he said in a deposition. “They had to walk on eggshells around me.”
On the day of the shooting, he told lawyers, he had pushed Alexander into a door hard enough to crack it. And, he said Alexander never pointed the gun at him.
“I honestly think she just didn’t want me to put my hands on her anymore so she did what she feel like she had to do to make sure she didn’t get hurt,” he said under oath. “You know, she did what she had to do.”
No one was injured. But the two decades behind bars was mandatory.
An appeals court this September awarded Alexander a new trial based on a jury instruction error.
Similarly inflexible sentences are one reason a 2012 study found Florida to be the most punitive state in the nation. So, even though crime is at a 42-year low, prisons are still being filled: The average sentence for a newly incarcerated Florida inmate recently inched up to a little more than five years.
It’s the fifth year in a row Florida prison sentences increased.
Reformers’ ideas to improve prisons
- Give judges more discretion in sentencing nonviolent offenders by changing mandatory-minimum sentencing laws. Low-level drug offenders fill prisons. Sentence length continues to climb. That inflates costs, even as crime has hit a 42-year low.
- Convene the legislative working group on determining private prison cost savings every year. Most believe the current system of comparing specific private and public prisons is flawed. But the working group can’t address the issue unless the House speaker or Senate president calls for a meeting. That hasn’t happened since 2005. As a result, hundreds of millions of dollars have been paid out to private prison companies without the benefit of ongoing formal analysis of how costs are figured.
- Remove the 90 percent payment guarantee from state statute. Florida law requires private prison companies to be paid as if the prisons are 90 percent full, whether they are or not, and even when the public prison population goes down.
- Examine private prison cost savings on an annual basis. Because savings are calculated over the life of the contact, a prison can post few or no savings in a single year and still qualify for a contract extension.
- Consider financial penalties for prisons failing to meet 7 percent savings.
- Give management oversight of private prisons to the Department of Corrections, eliminating dual control with the Department of Management Services. No other state puts two agencies in charge.
- Increase the number of mentally or physically ill inmates in a private prison. Current contracts call for private prisons to house large numbers of healthier, cheaper prisoners, while the state is left with the sickest inmates.
- Reconsider education and training in public prisons. The state has agreed to pay more for more training at private facilities than it is willing to pay in public prisons.
- Sources: Prison advocacy groups, academics, consultants