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Shuttered Florida Prisons Could Be Re-Opened

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(Credit: Thinkstock)

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TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami) – One year after Florida closed several prisons to save money, the state insists it must re-open some of them because of a growing inmate population.

The Department of Corrections wants the Legislature to appropriate $59 million to open nine shuttered facilities next year from Miami to the Panhandle, including two prisons, five work camps and two reentry centers. The prisons, in Raiford and Polk City, were closed in July 2012 and were touted by Gov. Rick Scott as good-news, cost-cutting steps in the budget.

The new request is based on a July forecast from the state Criminal Justice Estimating Conference showing that even as the crime rate continues to drop, new admissions to the prison system are rising. They are projected to increase by 2.7 percent next year and 1.4 percent the following year, requiring more than 1,000 new prison beds, according to our news partners at the Miami Herald.

The current inmate population is about 101,000.

Scott, who’s seeking re-election in 2014, recently asked state agencies to cut spending by $100 million, but the prison system alone wants $124 million more next year, including money for more officers, new buses and vans, the food service system and an electronic timekeeping system.

The sudden shift is reviving the debate over whether Florida locks up too many nonviolent drug offenders who should get treatment, not just punishment.

Florida has the nation’s third-largest prison system, spends about $18,000 a year on average to house each of its inmates, and nearly three of every 10 inmates are back behind bars within three years.

“They’re not getting treatment. They’re being housed and I don’t know how smart that is,” Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said at a recent hearing of the committee he chairs, which oversees the prison system’s $2.4 billion budget.

“This is the perfect opportunity for us to re-engineer our criminal sentencing laws and save money at the same time,” said Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, also a member of the Senate budget committee overseeing prisons. “We need to have a real conversation about who we’re putting in prison and whether that’s best for the state.”

In its budget request for next year, the Florida prison system is seeking $58.8 million to hire 862 workers by June 2015.
That would undercut Scott’s emphasis on steadily cutting the size of the state workforce.

Scott must decide whether to include the request to reopen the prisons and work camps in the election-year budget that he will send to the Legislature in February.

(©2013 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. CBS4 news partner The Miami Herald contributed material for this report.)

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