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Florida Senators Look to Texas for Prison System Cuts

January 23, 2011 - 6:00pm

Florida legislators were treated Monday to a tutorial in criminal justice, Texas-style.

Not so much the death penalty Texas-style justice, but the money-saving, cost-reducing style of the criminal justice system that conservative Texas has become known for since instituting reforms in 2007.

Texas has a notorious reputation. Its a tough-on-crime state, Texas Rep. Jerry Madden, R-Plano, told a joint meeting of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee and Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Subcommittee.

But that tough reputation now includes drug and alcohol treatment programs, less stringent penalties for parole and probation violations, and improved mental health care. The reforms stemmed from a desire to save money by reducing the need for more prisons and the political necessity of not appearing soft on crime.

If your choice is not to build, your choice is either to let them out or to stop them coming in. Politically, youre not going to open the door and let them out. The only option I had at that stage was how do I slow them down, Madden told the senators.

Florida senators are wary of losing their tough-on-crime bonafides, but also of finding money for programs that will take three or four years to see budget savings, when the Legislature is facing a $3.62 billion deficit.

We have no money, this year, its worse than ever. We have no money now to do preventative programs, said Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach.

But Madden said some reforms -- like initiating progressive sanctions for technical violations of probation (like being late or missing a meeting with a probation officer), and providing incentives for probation offices to keep felons in "the system" instead of sending them back to prison for a technical violation -- can be done with little or no immediate cost.

The Florida Department of Corrections currently has a budget of $2.4 billion and a prison population of 102,000.

Business groups and tax-hawk advocates were on hand to applaud the efforts of Texas and Madden. Florida TaxWatch released a study last month recommending the adoption of many of the Texas reforms, which could save the state up to $4 billion.

We are encouraged that our legislators sought out Rep. Maddens perspective on how to save taxpayers money while reducing crime, and we look forward to continuing to be a resource for our policymakers to help implement needed corrections reforms as outlined in our recent task force report, said Florida TaxWatch President and CEO Dominic Calabro.

Any future programs, though, must be done prudently, with an eye on results. Madden, who authored many of the Texas reforms, identified three kinds of felons -- the career criminal incapable of rehabilitation, the one-time criminal who will likely not commit another crime, and the swingers, who have a problem like a drug addiction, and will be rehabilitated if cured. If the wrong type of criminal is in the wrong type of program, the state is wasting money, he argues.

You have what I call the most important group, I call them swingers -- maybe if you do the right thing for them you can prevent them from coming back, Madden said.

Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, however, believes an overreliance on drug treatment programs could be a slippery slope for the criminal justice system in Florida.

We run a terrible risk in our society if we say, If you have a drug problem, youre going to be treated differently. Were creating a negative incentive, Storms said.

If Florida does adopt Texas-like reforms, it would be another step toward outright emulation of the Lone Star State. Gov. Rick Scott is fond of talking about his need to compete with Texas Gov. Rick Perry, by making Florida more competitive and a better place to do business. Madden thinks theres a reason for that.

I will tell you that the successes coming from around the country are coming from more conservative states, Madden said.

Reach Gray Rohrer at or at (850) 727-0859.

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