Sunday, 7 January 2007

Helping ex-inmates the smart thing to do

Helping ex-inmates the smart thing to do

Palm Beach Post Commentary

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Of the 31,000 inmates released from Florida prisons last year, an estimated 8,105 will return to prison for new crimes within three years. The cost of incarcerating so many inmates for a single year is nearly $148 million, excluding capital costs, court costs and costs to local governments. If each of those inmates receives the average 4.6-year sentence, the cost to Florida taxpayers will exceed $670 million.

Yet no one can calculate the human costs that ex-offender crimes impose on average Floridians. The life of Martin County resident Katherine Burns was forever changed by an ex-offender who in prison had been prescribed anti-psychotic medication to treat bipolar disorder. Released from prison without guidance or resources to continue his treatment, he relapsed into a manic-depressive psychosis and murdered Ms. Burns' stepsister and best friend, Susan Jane Martin.

"My sister was a victim not only of this man but of a system that failed to prepare him to reenter society safely," said Ms. Burns, now a dedicated victims' advocate. "We can only guess how many Floridians would be spared from such tragedies if the state did a better job rehabilitating ex-offenders."

To respond to this crisis, the task force outlined several recommendations to protect public safety and save lives.

First, the Department of Corrections should commit itself to explicitly address the successful reentry of ex-offenders into society. To measure its effectiveness in meeting this goal, the department should institute performance measures for its facilities, wardens and staff to assess its work in assisting successful ex-offender reentry. It should also address recidivism rates in the performance standards it specifies in privatization contracts.

Next, the Department of Corrections should improve and expand job-training and substance-abuse treatment programs for prisoners. Research has proven that these programs make inmates better behaved while they are in prison and less likely to commit crimes after they are released. However, money for such programs vital to reducing recidivism rates — by keeping ex-offenders off drugs and making them employable — has declined over the past five years, even as the state's inmate population has increased 18 percent. This trend must be reversed if we are to successfully reduce ex-offender recidivism.

Finally, the Department of Corrections should begin pre-release planning with inmates, starting on their first day of incarceration, especially for inmates serving brief sentences, and it should develop individualized reentry plans for each inmate.

Too often, we put ex-offenders back on the streets with no plan for them to successfully reenter the community — no home, no job prospects, and no support. Then, even if they want to go straight after they are released, they're pulled back into the crowd that got them into trouble, and sooner or later, they end up back in prison.

Developing a support plan for ex-offenders would not be big government, it would be smart government that prevents crime. We cannot continue to release people from prison who are unprepared to return to society and succeed in living a crime-free life, and we cannot continue to fail our communities by leaving them unprepared to help ex-offenders succeed.

We can stop the revolving door and ensure that fewer ex-offenders commit new crimes. Undoubtedly, enacting these recommendations will cost money, maybe even tens of millions of dollars. But with Florida paying $670 million to lock up each year's class of repeat offenders, we can't afford not to make a change.

Vicki Lopez Lukis, a resident of Coral Gables, was chairwoman of the Governor's Ex-Offender Task Force.

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