Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican once known for his support of prison chain gangs, is embracing an inmate rehabilitation effort often seen as “soft on crime,” says the St. Petersburg Times. The new mind-set, also welcomed by top Republican lawmakers, is not a change of heart from the lock-’em-up policies that dominated the past decade. Rather, it shows how Florida’s dire budget situation is making officials rethink the link between crime and punishment.
The shift is notable, given that Republicans are leading the discussion during an election year. Nearly 90 percent of inmates will eventually leave prison, and one in three commit a new crime within three years. If the state trims recidivism by just 1 percent, it saves $8 million a year. “Particularly in austere budget times, re-entry (programs) really make good business and public safety sense,” Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Walt McNeil said. “It comes from the lock-them-up-and-throw-away-the-key (policies) – the evidence shows it has not been very effective.” The political winds changed in June, when three former Florida attorneys general, a retired Department of Corrections secretary and the state’s powerful business lobby asked Crist to halt spending for new prison construction Each inmate costs taxpayers $20,000 a year, and the prison population now tops 100,000. In his executive budget, Crist proposed no money for new prisons and diverted funding for prison work camps to prisoner re-entry centers.