Florida offers a classic example of how mandatory sentencing laws and large-scale incarceration of drug offenders can produce an unbalanced correctional system and possibly reduce public safety, according a new study by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency (NCCD), the San Francisco-based criminal justice research group.
"The legacy of Florida's drug wars and mandatory sentencing practices is a very chaotic and ineffective prison system where very little treatment, supervision or punishment is being administered," NCCD Vice President James Austin said in a recently issued report. "It is the worst of both worlds when nonviolent, petty property and drug offenders are sentenced inappropriately to prison while dangerous criminals are released early."
Using statistics gathered by the U.S. Justice Department and the Florida Department of Corrections, Dr. Austin made a case that Florida went overboard with mandatory sentencing laws and incarceration of drug offenders. In 1989, Florida prisons admitted nearly 6,000 offenders convicted of cocaine possession, for example. As a result of the tougher laws, state prison admissions more than quadrupled during the 1980s, from about 10,000 in 1980 to nearly 44,000 in 1989.
To accommodate the demand on the prison system, the legislature approved nearly $400 million to build 25,000 new prison beds. But "this dramatic building program was insufficient to meet the crunching avalanche of new prison admissions," Dr. Austin said.
The nearly $750 million that Florida spent during the 1980s building and operating additional prison space has not produced relief on crime rates, Austin Said. FBI Uniform Crime Report figures show that the state's overall crime rate increased 5 percent between 1980 and 1989.
"State officials are now trying to change these practices, Austin said. "It will take major reforms over a number of years to restore credibility to the state's penal system."
The 8-page report, The Consequences of Escalating the Use of Imprisonment: The Case Study of Florida, is available from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, 685 Market Street, Suite 620, San Francisco, CA 94105.
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