Florida Could Limit Prison Growth by Turning to its Drug Courts

The first drug court in the United States was formed in Miami-Dade County in 1989. Since then, Florida has increased that number to 106 drug courts, with at least one in every judicial circuit. In 2011, drug courts in Florida saw about 10,000 participants. The felony recidivism rate for drug court participants is 12 percent, compared to the control group’s rate of 40 percent. Florida continues to expand its problem-solving courts, including Veterans’ Courts and Mental Health Courts.

Florida

In many other states where drug courts have blossomed (like Texas), incarceration and recidivism rates have been in decline. Despite being a leader and innovator in problem-solving courts, however, Florida’s prison population has grown at a rate of 11.4 times between 1990 and 2009, while its population in general increased only 2.7 times.

Part of the problem may be that despite being a leader in problem-solving courts, Florida still has some of the strictest mandatory minimum sentencing laws in the county, including for drug offenses. In fact, a person could very well end up spending more time in prison for a drug offense than for manslaughter.

This backwards prioritizing is costing Florida taxpayers millions of dollars. Indeed, in 2010, the Florida Department of Corrections was “housing 5,135 inmates serving mandatory drug sentences,” said DOC spokeswoman Jo Ellen Rackleff. At a cost of $20,108 per year to keep an inmate in prison, mandatory drug sentences were costing Florida almost $103 million.

Florida already has many tools it could use in order to implement more effective, efficient, and affordable alternatives to incarceration, particularly for those addicted to drugs. Drug courts have worked, and continue to work in Florida. It is time for policy-makers in Florida to do their part in reforming the mandatory minimum-sentencing laws that are costing taxpayers millions of dollars and no longer serving their intended purpose.

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