Closing Crumbling, Costly Prisons is the Right Thing To Do

Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson is absolutely on the right path in criticizing Florida’s malfunctioning adult prison system and demanding it be held accountable.

He says he’s “doing the math” and his math is blackboard perfect. He and his team deserve the full support of child advocacy groups including American Children’s Campaign.

For several years, the American Children’s Campaign has voiced our objection about the adult prison system’s monetary drain on Florida’s budget, its continued waste, and its lack of creativity and originality in achieving better outcomes. Due to the prison system’s extraordinary expense, and the hardships it creates on families, Florida’s children don’t receive resources to meet their needs in an equitable way, especially the most vulnerable. To paraphrase Sonnet 43 by Elizabeth Barret Browning “… Let Me Count The Ways.”

Hundreds of Millions Diverted from Juvenile Justice for Adult Prisons

Florida’s children have paid an enormous price for the adult prisons’ inefficiencies and poor decisions. Hundreds of millions of dollars from juvenile justice have been transferred. As a result, the entire “mid-section” of juvenile justice is essentially laid bare, leaving only some front-end prevention services and the costliest back-end services — high security residential programs managed by “for profit” providers with recurring problems and high-profile tragedies. Florida based non-profits with local governance who used to provide residential services with integrity have largely evaporated due to ridiculously low per diem rates. Communities pull at their hair to find quality interventions for justice-involved children and their families.

Nearly impossible to find are re-entry services which help children leaving residential settings adjust to their still dysfunctional families and neighborhoods. Justice-involved children are literally being dumped back into cities and towns and their overwhelmed child welfare systems, now called “community kids” (bureaucratic jargon that means they’re on their own for all intents and purposes). To advocates, the result is akin to squirting an accelerant on a smoldering foster care fire. American Children’s Campaign has made it a legislative priority for the Department of Juvenile Justice to fix this crisis by once again providing credible and accountable re-entry services.

Prisons Can’t Be Fixed without Fixing Mental Health

Florida’s behavioral health system is woefully underfunded, ranking 49th in the country. Lack of services underpin a multitude of problems not only in Florida’s child welfare and juvenile justice systems, but also all systems of care, including children’s health, maternal health, special needs and early education.

In behavioral health, the problems date back decades when Florida closed state mental health facilities but fatefully and neglectfully chose not to invest the savings in community mental health and substance abuse services. Advocates predicted that jails and prisons would become the most expensive providers of low-quality mental health care and that prediction has borne out. A massive overhaul is required. The mental health system needs more than additional money, though. It too is plagued by a lack of science-based direction and creativity. Currently, the greatest share of dollars is spent on “revolving door frequent fliers.”  The mental health system could benefit from models perfected in the medical field (e.g. hotspotting) to improve care and stop the revolving door. These models are largely ignored.

The challenge of small towns relying on nearby prisons for employment is not lost on us. Florida touts its economic prowess and success in creating jobs.  It’s long past time, however, for Florida’s executive branch to lessen the dependency on unneeded prisons. Rural towns deserve better than prison jobs. And Florida’s everyday children and families deserve better too.



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This Top Story is brought to you by Roy Miller and Karen Bonsignori