Florida's prison population decreased for the first time in nearly three decades. (Photo by Lonny Paul.)

By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

For the first time in nearly three decades, Florida’s prison population has actually decreased.

Lloyd Dunkleberger reports in the Star-Banner of Ocala:

Florida’s prison population is now projected to dip below 100,000 by this fall and stay there for the next five years, according to a new criminal justice estimate.

The numbers stood at 100,527 inmates on June 30, compared with 102,319 inmates at the end of June 2011, Florida Department of Corrections data show.

It is expected to average just above 99,000 inmates for the next five years.

According to experts, the sudden drop is a result of fewer crimes being committed in the state. The decrease is expected to save the state a lot of money.

So far, Dunkleberger reports that the decrease in crime can only be attributed to high incarceration rates.

The declining prison population is a sign of a dramatic decrease in Florida’s overall crime rate, which peaked in 1991, but has declined by more than half since then, according to analysis by Florida State University’s College of Criminology and Criminal Justice.

“The primary driver of the drop in crime in Florida over the last 20 years seemed to be the increasing incarceration rate,” said Bill Bales, head of FSU’s Center for Criminology and Public Policy Research. “It doesn’t seem to be economics. It’s not the level of police presence. It’s not demographics.

If that turns out to be true, the state’s budget will not receive any long-term relief.

The state’s prison system has been seeing rising costs for a long time, which has led to interests among conservatives to privatize several prisons, or privatize some prison services. Last year, for example, there was a successful effort among lawmakers to privatize prison healthcare services. However, unions have been fighting further privatization.

Yet reforms aimed at preventing crime and recidivism have not been taken as seriously.

This year, in the latest effort for reform, the Legislature passed a bill aimed at reducing the number of repeat offenders, but Gov. Rick Scott shot down the proposed law. According to the Tampa Bay Times:

The vetoed bill (HB 177) would have permitted a small group of drug-addicted inmates to move from prison to intensive treatment programs after serving half their time. They’d still be in custody, but not behind bars.

The prison system said a total of 337 inmates could have participated in the first year, out of more than 100,000 statewide. Only nonviolent offenders would have been eligible after a full assessment and after being enrolled in adult education courses.

The prison system would have chosen inmates based on their good behavior, the severity of their addictions and the likelihood that rehabilitation would save taxpayer dollars, a House analysis said.

In other words, the bill, properly implemented, could have reduced the cost of government, the very thing that Scott talks about so much.

The bill had support across party lines and passed almost unanimously in both chambers of the Florida Legislature.