Florida and Drug Offenders

Last month, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie became the latest leader to publicly recognize that simply warehousing nonviolent drug offenders in prison is a costly mistake.

Christie, a lifelong Republican and former federal prosecutor, delivered the following truisms in a speech at the Brookings Institution: “The war on drugs, while well-intentioned, has been a failure” and New Jersey is “warehousing addicted people every day in state prisons … giving them no treatment.”

So, too, is Florida, with a prison population four times the size of New Jersey’s.

Christie also correctly pointed out that a year of drug treatment costs less than half of what it costs to incarcerate a person for a year. For every dollar spent on substance-abuse treatment in prison, states save $2 to $6 on reduced recidivism and health-care costs.

Substance-abuse treatment not only costs less, but it significantly reduces crime rates by, according to five national studies, an average of 8 percent to 26 percent.

The costs of long-term incarceration, or as Christie aptly put it, “warehousing,” are astronomical. The benefits are few.

“We have an obligation to understand that addiction is a disease and that we need to give people a chance to overcome that disease and to restore dignity and meaning to their lives,” Christie has said. “That’s not a Republican or Democratic issue; it’s a bipartisan issue.”

Sunshine State drug abusers are no more difficult or expensive to treat than those in the Garden State. Drugs are no more addictive here and dignity is worth no less. So you would think that a bipartisan approach to offering substance-abuse treatment and expanding justice reinvestment could save money, reduce crime and restore dignity in Florida, too.

It could, but it won’t because our governor has stood in the way of common-sense reforms. In April, Gov.Rick Scott vetoed legislation that would have made a small number (only about 337) of nonviolent inmates eligible to receive drug treatment and supervised release after serving at least half their sentences and completing six-month treatment programs in prison.

The governor’s opposition to this modest reform defied the common understanding by those on both sides of the aisle — by liberals, conservatives, business leaders and, apparently, a governor in New Jersey — that we simply cannot afford to keep so many people in prison or keep them for so long.

Florida statistics are stark. Sentencing schemes and other changes in the 1990s swelled the state prison population, which has more than doubled since 1990 and nearly quadrupled since 1984. Florida severely overuses incarceration for nonviolent offenders.

Since 1996, the number of drug offenders sent to prison has doubled. At the same time, prison admissions for violent felonies have remained relatively constant. Eighty-five percent of drug offenders sentenced under mandatory minimum schemes have no record of violent felonies.

This means that, like New Jersey, Florida is spending huge amounts of money to warehouse nonviolent drug offenders for long, pointless prison terms. It’s a problem that can’t be ignored.

Christie is not alone in reaching this conclusion. States such as Texas, Mississippi and New York have changed their sentencing and incarceration systems and are earning the rewards of smaller corrections budgets and reduced crime rates. Mississippi reduced its prison growth by 22 percent over three years, saved $16 million in prison costs in 2011 alone and has seen the crime rate fall to its lowest level since 1984.

If saving money and reducing crime isn’t enough of an incentive for Scott to join his colleagues in calling for reform, maybe the concept of redemption is. As Christie said, “Every life is precious and every one of God’s creatures can be redeemed, but they won’t if we ignore them.”

Unfortunately, thanks to Scott, Floridians are stuck with a failed policy model that is blind to the human and financial costs of dead-end prison terms. As a result, we are left looking to New Jersey for enlightenment.

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