The following is a guest op-ed from Barney Bishop III, the president and chief executive officer of the Florida Smart Justice Alliance, a statewide coalition of organizations committed to changes that make communities safer, save the taxpayers money and hold offenders accountable while helping them learn to live law-abiding lives.
Government’s first responsibility is to provide for the safety of its citizenry, and Florida has historically done an excellent job of protecting us from those who would do us harm. Along with effective law enforcement, a key component in Florida’s declining rate of violent crime is the state’s adherence to a rule that all felons must serve at least 85 percent of their sentences before they can be released.
Since the vast majority of felons are going to be released back into our communities – 87 percent of them within five years, according to the head of Florida’s Department of Corrections – we need to use every tool available to ensure that they do not commit new crimes and create new victims. Technological advances can play a vital role in this effort, including Florida’s use of electronic monitoring (“ankle bracelets”) for some prisoners.
The Florida Smart Justice Alliance has consistently advocated for increased use of electronic monitoring. We applaud Governor Rick Scott for his commitment to public safety in recommending that $7.5 million for work release inmates to be fitted with these devices whenever they work a job outside a secure facility.
Work release is part of a step-down system available to certain inmates, at the discretion of the Department of Corrections. The department conducts a careful classification and risk assessment, and then determines which inmates should be eligible for a job in the community as they near their end of sentence. These inmates are housed at non-secure facilities, which are always located in urban areas around the state because that’s where the jobs are.
Prison inmates, both violent and non-violent, are coming back to live among us. The only question is whether, having served their time, they will return as law-abiding citizens or resume a life of crime. We can dramatically improve the odds of the first, better option by using tools and providing skills to help them succeed within our communities.
Work release is one of those tools, and electronic monitoring makes it a safer option. Most ankle bracelets are tamper-proof and can track an inmate within a few feet with state-of-the-art GPS technology, even inside a building. This means that if an inmate attempts to remove the bracelet or stray from where he is supposed to be, law enforcement can know quickly. While electronic monitoring by itself won’t prevent a work release inmate from committing a crime, by pinpointing his location at all times the device will make it almost impossible for him to argue that he was somewhere else at the time.
This issue is particularly important in populous counties like Pinellas, where Sen. Jack Latvala and Rep. Ed Hooper have worked tirelessly to ensure the safety of the neighborhood around work release facilities.
In a recent pilot program by a non-profit provider of work release programs, not a single inmate deviated or attempted to remove his ankle bracelet during a 90-day test. Since there is no foolproof test to tell us conclusively who should and should not be allowed to work in the community before leaving prison, we must rely on such technological tools to help minimize the risk of danger.
We could improve the odds by requiring the department to allow only non-violent felons to be in work release programs. But then what would we do with all the violent inmates who will be getting out with no education or job skills, and no realistic prospects for success? Are we supposed to deny them all opportunity to work and then just hope they successfully reintegrate themselves into society on their own?
The Smart Justice Alliance believes the best hope to protect society is to implement the Governor’s recommendation, making sure all work release inmates wear ankle bracelets whenever they are outside the facility. This will help keep them in their assigned locations, ensuring that public safety remains job number one for Florida government.
The Florida Senate has put the $7.5 million in its criminal justice budget. The Florida Smart Justice Alliance is optimistic the House will do likewise, because failing to accept the Governor’s recommendation would put our citizens at greater risk. Nothing can be foolproof, but with electronic monitoring we will at least know that our state government did its best to keep us safe.