During the 2018 legislative session, reentry-focused therapeutic programs for inmates were closed by the Florida Department of Corrections to reallocate $6 million for use within the prisons. Locally, that program was known as “Reality House,” a successful therapeutic community established in 1980.

The Reality House included a culinary arts program, a GED program, individual and group counseling, family education, recreation, spiritual services, anger management, social reintegration training, and transition to a work release program with a 95% successful employment rate. All of these therapeutic communities were designed to allow inmates near the end of their sentence to learn and put into practical application employment opportunities, educational, vocational, and life skills while being treated for their substance use and co-occurring mental health disorders.

While up to 30,000 Florida inmates are released from custody each year, it is projected that at least one in four (26%) will commit an offense that returns them to prison within the next three years (according to a 2018 state report tracking recidivism). Inmates that completed these programs, like those offered at Reality House, demonstrated a recidivism rate of 13% – one-half that of those that are released directly from Florida’s prisons. 

The current rate to house an inmate in a Florida prison is $59.57 per day at an annual cost of $21,743.05. Prior to the 2018 closures, the rate paid for inmates placed in therapeutic programs was $52.00 per day – and inmates released from these programs left with having had the benefit of substance use and mental health disorder treatment, practical life and work skills, and a job with a chance for a career. At 600 therapeutic beds, the direct annual savings to the taxpayer would be $2,593,260 annually; with a reduction in the recidivism rate of 50%, the return on investment is invaluable. 

Now is the time for our criminal justice system to be held accountable – for the unprecedented number of people that continue to be incarcerated, and for the unchecked rates of recidivism. We need to better align our approach to punishment with the goal of rehabilitation. We need to reinvest in programs that work and demand that the Florida Department of Corrections reinstitute the concept of a true therapeutic community for those inmates that are being released from the prison system. We need to quit being mad at offenders who have done their time and instead focus on ensuring that those that are returning to our community – whether we like it or not – are given the best chance to succeed. Their success creates a safer community, improves our economy, and validates the premise that recovery, rehabilitation and redemption are possible.