James R. McDonough was the secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections from 2006 to 2008. He was tapped by Gov. Jeb Bush, for whom he’d worked as Florida’s drug czar since 1999. McDonough moved to DOC after Bush fired Secretary James Crosby, who later went to prison for taking kickbacks.
His no-nonsense style proved the antidote to scandal at DOC. He fired or demoted dozens of prison officials and instituted random drug tests and mandatory fitness programs for employees. He angered many, but is widely credited for cleaning up the place.
Since leaving DOC, McDonough has stayed active in corrections. He’s involved with the “smart justice” movement to cut recidivism via substance abuse and mental health treatment and basic education for prisoners. He also favors diversion programs and other reforms, and is comfortable sailing against the political winds.
“Politics in Florida has been such that public officials are afraid to appear, quote, weak on crime,” he said. “And the way that’s defined is, ‘Don’t lighten up on the sentencing in any way whatsoever.'”
A retired Army colonel, McDonough has won three Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart. He’s written three books: “Platoon Leader;” “The Defense of Hill 781;” and “The Limits of Glory.”
The News Service of Florida has five questions for Jim McDonough:
Q: Privatization is a big part of Gov. Rick Scott’s approach to cutting prison costs. Agree or disagree?
McDONOUGH: I don’t agree. There are some things government has to do. If you’re going to be incarcerating its citizens, that’s a state function, not a for-profit function. Right away, you have problems when you take that approach.
I think Florida became a very lucrative state to market private prison systems and the services that came with it. The medical issue, I think, is tied in with all of that. If the state is going to arrest people and put them behind bars, it picks up the obligation to look after their health – and not market that out to the most attractive bidder, which usually means the lowest bidder.
I’m not surprised Florida became such a target for the private companies. It’s a huge market, and became, on the surface, an attractive way to go.
Now, in my opinion, it’s the obligation of the state. I think if it becomes the obligation of the state, it’ll be justly met. But if you turn it into an enterprise, with commercial profits involved, it’s a risky business.
Q: The backers of private prisons argue they’re more efficient than state prisons. True?
McDONOUGH: In my time as head of the corrections system of Florida, I considered it my obligation to look into the housing of all of the inmates, whether they were cared for by the state or the private prisons.
Clearly there was an effort to send to the privates the easier inmates to handle. That meant that you don’t have the more misbehaving inmates or the more dangerous inmates or the more medically ill inmates going to the privates. So for the privates, that becomes an advantage. If you’re not working overtime to take care of all of that, and spending the money, then the overall outcome appears to be less expensive.
But it’s not. When [private prisons] grow and take increasing percentages of the inmates, they get the ill as well as the well. They get the violent as well as the non-violent. They get the dangerous as well as the stable, and so on. So I always thought that the selling point that it could be done at a percent less than it cost the state to care for an inmate was absolutely skewed data.
One of their prime conceptions was to hire employees at the lowest possible wage level. I thought that meant there was not as careful a pick of who was going to work in the system. And my observation, going into the prisons, was that was political. And that meant, therefore, that the discipline, the behavior, the control within the privates were not up to the standards they should have been.
Q: You backed a bill last session to allow non-violent, drug-addicted inmates to move from prison to treatment programs after serving half their time. Why did it fail?
McDONOUGH: I continue to see some well-respected law enforcement officials arguing that any questioning of [current sentencing guidelines] proves there’s a lack of understanding of the seriousness of crime. I think that’s nonsense.
The Legislature, which is largely Republican, passed it. Not only did they pass it, it passed with overwhelming numbers. So there you had a good idea, a good bill, tremendous political support. And then you had shrill voices saying, “Oh, no, no, no…We shouldn’t do this, because it’ll be weak on crime.”
And lo and behold, the governor vetoed it. It was an unbelievable instance of a lost opportunity, of playing to this over-inflated, get-tough-on-crime mystique.
Q: But hasn’t the crime rate been going down? Doesn’t that suggest getting tougher works?
McDONOUGH: Yes, when you get tougher on crime and you get a very violent criminal who’s on a crime spree and can’t change his behavior, incarcerating that guy and keeping him a long time does have an effect on public safety. I’m all for that.
But it’s like a pendulum swinging. If you go too far, it’s going to crash back of its own weight. The crash-back we have seen, by incorporating everybody into these policies and laws that lead to more time in prison.
It’s just too expensive. You have caught up in this pendulum swing a lot of people who would not be doing damage on the outside, and who – with a little bit of money invested in their rehabilitation – would probably do quite well.
Q: Florida was just cited for a 166 percent increase in the average sentence between 1990 and 2009 – the most of any state. Other states have dialed back their sentences. Why not Florida?
McDONOUGH: Other states that are conservative in their political structure, like Texas, actually have gone the other way. They’ve really flattened out their prison growth. They’ve saved hundreds of millions of dollars on prison construction, and they have seen crime decrease.
So the examples are out there. Florida is sort of a holdout, on an idea that has seen its day, served a purpose for a bit, but now has gone too far. I’d like to see Florida come into the modern age a bit, and come up with smart justice approaches.