In the past 35 years, Florida’s population has more than doubled — swelling by 102 percent.
That number can’t compare, however, to the 402 percent increase in the number of lawbreakers housed in the state’s prisons.
According to an investigation by Florida TaxWatch, there were 102,225 people imprisoned in Florida as of January. That number is projected to increase to 106,793 by 2017.
It’s costing the state $2.3 billion to house all of those lawbreakers — an increase of a whopping 1,200 percent in the past 35 years.
Those numbers would indicate Florida is nothing short of the Wild West — an untamed territory where people are being shot at, and shot, and robbed at an alarming rate.
But, a closer look at the people who occupy Florida’s prison cells paints a different picture.
Some of the felony crimes that call for prison time include:
• Failure to remit sales tax greater than $300.
• Fleeing or attempting to flee police.
• Possession of a fake ID.
• A tenant who removed property upon which a lien has accrued, valued at more than $50.
• Engaging in bookmaking.
• Passing a worthless check of $150 or more.
• Setting up a lottery or advertising a drawing for prizes.
• A false statement on an insurance claim.
• Possession of 11 turtle eggs.
Now, while we would never propose those crimes don’t warrant punishment, it is difficult to imagine prison time is a logical sentence.
Of course many first-time offenders do not always end up in prison. However, a felony conviction is serious and on top of prison time can result in the person losing the right to vote, to be evicted from a home or public housing, lose state benefits, lose the right to carry a firearm or lose federal assistance for higher education.
It costs the state $20,000 a year to incarcerate a prisoner. Florida’s annual prison budget is about $2.3 billion.
Consider all the money that could be saved by finding alternative ways to punish all of these nonviolent offenders.
Plus, it is a proven fact that going to prison often hardens the criminal and leads to other crimes and a return to prison.
There are other ways to dole out punishment for the nonviolent, less serious crimes, like:
• Use house arrest with an ankle bracelet.
• Settle property crimes with a stiff fine — or even reduce them to a misdemeanor.
• Sentence more community service as an alternative for first-time offenders.
• Expand special court programs for drug and alcohol abuse and take aim at the rehabilitation of addicts.
We believe there are several alternatives to prison.
Many people make mistakes they regret. Putting them behind bars away from family and a support system is not always the answer.