With more than 100,000 inmates behind bars, Florida’s correctional population is among the largest in the United States.
One of the primary causes for the high population is that more than two-thirds of offenders are re-arrested and more than one-in-four return to prison within three years of their release. When these individuals cycle in and out of state and local facilities, they run up an enormous bill that is shouldered by Florida taxpayers. It costs an average of nearly $19,000 per year to house an inmate – more than three times the cost of tuition at the University of Florida.
Allowing non-violent prisoners who have paid their debt to society a better chance to be considered for employment could help reduce recidivism, improve public safety, and save taxpayers millions of dollars each year.
More than 30,000 inmates are released from Florida prisons annually. This means nearly 8,000 inmates released from prison in 2016 will be back behind bars by 2019, and 21,000 will have been arrested within that same time frame after unnecessarily hurting Florida’s families and businesses. While these numbers have decreased in recent years, they still suggest that Florida must improve the odds of success for offenders’ re-entry into society.
One of the most difficult challenges a prisoner faces upon release is finding a steady job. The unemployment rate in Florida has decreased since 2010, but the job market in the Sunshine State remains competitive, posing a challenge for released offenders trying to re-enter the work force.
While many offenders participate in educational, vocational, and work-release programs before and after their release, the truth is that no amount of programming can put someone who has served time on an even playing field with someone who has not. Beyond legal limits on employment options, released offenders also face non-statutory obstacles when they look for work. National studies show that having a record (but otherwise similar backgrounds) decreases the chance of a job applicant receiving a callback after an interview by up to 75 percent. This poses a serious problem, as unemployment for offenders has been consistently linked to increases in recidivism and decreased public safety.
The nation has long sought solutions addressing the cycle between unemployment and keeping ex-offenders from returning to prison. The federal government has incentives to encourage employers to consider ex-offenders for employment, the most notable being the Work Opportunity Tax Credit which allows for up to $9,600 in tax reductions for businesses that hire qualified ex-offenders. Several states have added to this effort and a similar push in Florida could be beneficial. A few policymakers highlighted this during the 2015 Legislative Session in bills that sought to create a $1,000 state tax credit for employers hiring ex-offenders and accepting vocational referrals.
These tax credits actually save taxpayers money. For every 100 inmates that find employment and do not re-offend, the state can save at least $2 million in future corrections costs. That doesn’t include the increase in public safety that comes with ex-offenders working rather than committing crimes. Florida needs to get serious about improving employment opportunities for ex-offenders. As our legislative leaders search for ways to save taxpayer’ money, helping offen ders get to work will make our state safer and allow for investments that will benefit all Floridians rather than maintaining a costly cycle of incarceration.
Dominic M. Calabro is president and CEO of Florida TaxWatch.
Featured in Sunshine State News and the Tallahassee Democrat.