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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Scott’s Prisoner Release Plan?

The Florida Police Benevolent Association takes a half-baked proposal to an illogical conclusion in a new TV ad that invites Floridians to think that Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott wants to shutter state prisons and free hardened criminals.

The ad — “Rick Scott is Florida’s Worst Nightmare” — was released Sept. 27. It is based on Scott’s proposal to cut costs at Florida’s state prisons. On his campaign website, Scott says he can cut $1 billion from the prison budget by reducing labor, medical and food costs. That’s highly unlikely given that the total budget for the Department of Corrections is $2.3 billion (page 360 of state budget).

Enter the Florida Police Benevolent Association.

The PBA ad (cue the ominous music) warns that “Rick Scott’s prison plan would cut Florida’s prison budget in half, close prisons, and release tens of thousands of prisoners early. Murderers, rapists, sex offenders, armed robbers, drug dealers.” The images are both arresting and amusing: menacing men high-fiving and laughing as they are being released by a man wearing a Rick Scott T-shirt.

But Scott never proposed closing prisons. That’s the speculation of a low-ranking state official; not the policy of a would-be governor. The claim that Scott’s plan would close prisons is based on a quote from prison spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger in the St. Petersburg Times. “It would be devastating,” she said of Scott’s proposed cuts. “You would have to close prisons.”

Scott says on his website that he can cut costs and cites Bureau of Justice Statistics figures that show Florida spends about twice as much as Mississippi to house a state prisoner. We looked at a June 2004 bureau report that shows that Florida spent $20,190 per prisoner on operating costs in fiscal year 2001, while Mississippi spent $12,795. But Florida is spending less than the national average ($22,650) and isn’t anywhere near the top in spending. Maine spent the most, at $44,379 per inmate in 2001.

Let’s assume for a moment that he cannot cut labor, medical and food costs at prisons by $1 billion. Will that result in the early release of “tens of thousands” of the most violent offenders — “murderers, rapists, sex offenders, armed robbers, drug dealers”? That’s more speculation on the part of the PBA, which has endorsed Democrat Alex Sink in this race and has a vested financial interest in protecting the prison budget from such dramatic cuts.

Consider this: State law requires all prisoners sentenced on or after Oct. 1, 1995, to serve 85 percent of their sentences. Someone serving 15 years on a sexual assault charge, for example, has to serve 12.8 years in prison. That law would have to be changed by the Legislature in order for the next governor to release inmates early.

It’s hard to know whether the ad is intended to scare voters or amuse them. It ends with an “inmate” saying, “Let’s get to work!” That’s Rick Scott’s campaign slogan.