Gov.-elect Rick Scott has continued to draw scrutiny for his supposed goal of shaving $1 billion a year from the state’s annual prison budget. The numbers just don’t seem to add up. How could the incoming governor possibly find that much waste in an overall budget of $2.4 billion — “a whopping 42 percent reduction” — without wreaking havoc on the state’s criminal justice system?

According to Brian Burgess, the communications director for Scott’s transition team, those reports are based on “fantastic claims.”

By making specific line items in Florida’s corrections budget comparable to other states, it is estimated that we can find $1 billion in savings within seven years. Nobody associated with Governor-elect Rick Scott has ever said  we’re going to “slash the corrections budget in half in 2011.” Any claims to the contrary are being made by people who (a) don’t know what they’re talking about and/or (b) hope to protect their turf and defend the status quo by spreading misinformation and falsehoods in order to scare people. [Emphasis added.]

The $1 billion figure first appeared on the campaign trail, as part of the Scott’s “7-7-7″ plan for cutting government and creating jobs. It soon became fodder for attack ads and editorials.

We reported on the Scott team’s clarification about the time frame for the $1 billion savings last week. A representative of the Police Benevolent Association, which ran an ad for Scott’s campaign opponent based on the information, told us he sees the statement from Scott’s team as a “backtrack.”

One thing is clear: Scott’s team isn’t interested in making cuts as drastic as has been reported.

Meanwhile, outside groups have outlined ways to achieve more modest savings — perhaps tens of millions of dollars this year, and more down the line.

Last week, Florida Tax Watch released a report (.pdf) detailing approximately $4 billion worth of potential remedies to Florida’s budget woes, and found savings in the prison system. High-end estimates of how much could be saved exceed $100 million in the coming year. Many of the ideas draw from programs in place in other states also under pressure to cut back on their corrections budgets.

The ideas include expanding work-release and education programs, increasing opportunities for well-behaved inmates who take advantage of job training or otherwise make constructive use of their time behind bars to get out early, and scaling back employment restrictions that make it harder for them to return to a normal life.

Expanding drug courts, drug rehabilitation programs and mental-health treatment, and exploring other alternatives to locking non-violent offenders in state prisons can also ease the burden on the prison system while at the same time making non-violent inmates less likely to become repeat offenders.

The report also calls for improving data systems and appointing a commission to scrutinize the department’s budget from top to bottom in search of other ways to save money.

Robert Weissert of Tax Watch says many of the measures can improve public safety in the long run. Minor offenders who get locked up with more hardened criminals can wind up earning “advanced degrees in criminal behavior.” On the other hand, “if they come out of prison with skills and job training, that reduces recidivism,” which can ease the burden on state prisons.

Matt Puckett of the Police Benevolent Association says he agrees that some of the proposed reforms can save money without jeopardizing public safety. The goal of the corrections system, after all, is to correct.

“We don’t want to have a revolving door at the Department of Corrections where we have inmates coming back after four years,” he says.

Still, he cautions that many of the savings pale in the face of a budget gap measured in the billions, and that the state may require short-term investments that will pay off in the long run.

Like other areas of the state’s government, the Department of Corrections may not quite be down to its bare bones, he says, but it’s probably close.

Scott has announced a few ideas of his own, which include expanding existing programs in which inmates grow their own food, paying “competitive market-based salaries” to corrections staff and privatizing prison clinics.

According to the St. Petersburg Times, Scott is spending time this week working out his budget plans.

Estimates released this week by the state economists show the budget shortfall could balloon from the $2.5 billion estimated this summer to more than $3.5 billion due to declining tax revenues. The new numbers will guide the first budgeting process for the new governor. His preliminary budget is expected in February.

Some of his other pans for cutting the budget, including $1.4 billion in proposed savings on state employee pensions, also come form his “7-7-7″ plan. Are those number also based on a seven-year time frame? As with his prison plan, most news reports dissecting the numbers suggest the cuts are annual, and could come as soon as next year.

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