Do prisons need reform? In California, the answer is yes. In Florida, the answer is no…at least for the present.

But don’t assume that Californians are soft on crime, or that Floridians favor a hard-line approach to offenders. The reality is more complex than that.

California will be reducing its prison population over the next year—not because of a kinder-and-gentler philosophy about incarceration, but because prison costs in California are out of control. Federal court mandates, citing problems like crowding and inadequate medical and dental care, are call for dramatic reductions in California’s prison budget. The overhaul will cut spending by billions of dollars, cancel some construction projects, close one lockup and bring back 9,500 inmates housed in other states.

Florida’s legislature recently passed its own version of prison reduction. A cost-saving bill to shorten prison terms and provide treatment for nonviolent offenders swept through Florida’s Republican legislature recently. The Florida House passed the bill 112 – 4, and the vote was unanimous in Florida’s Senate. But Gov. Rick Scott immediately vetoed the bill, citing concerns about public safety.

Public reaction was mixed. Some taxpayers favored the prison-reduction bill, citing the reduction in public spending in a state struggling to meet budget demands. But some criminal-justice professionals expressed concern about a possible rise in crime rates, which have been dropping steadily in Florida.

Sheriff Grady Judd in Polk County, Florida, praised Scott’s decision. In a column printed in major Florida newspapers, Judd refuted the argument that “prisoners considered for early release were non-violent and posed no threat to society.” Judd noted that “These criminals violated laws and have already been given the right to fair and impartial passage through our judicial system — their law-breaking alone resulted in incarceration in state prison—they are personally responsible, and the courts held them accountable for their crimes.”

But “A Bad Veto,” an editorial in the Orlando Sentinel, took Scott to task, claiming that “the governor’s veto message suggests he and his staff really didn’t read the bill….The bill contained stringent eligibility requirements that belied the governor’s veto message. The measure, in fact…would have required the Florida Department of Corrections to limit eligibility to a select group of nonviolent offenders.”

The unfolding stories in California and Florida suggest that the longtime debate about incarceration—punish or rehabilitate?—has given away to a new one: How can we contain the enormous cost of maintaining our inmate population? What seems to be urgently needed right now is accurate data about the types of offenders who go to prison and the level of risk that each group presents to society. We can expect to see more number crunching and more demands for accountability as the debate spreads to other states.

Jean Reynolds, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus of English at Polk State College, where she taught report writing and communication skills in the criminal justice program. She is the author of seven books, including Police Talk (Pearson), co-written with the late Mary Mariani. Visit her website at www.YourPoliceWrite.com for free report writing resources. Go to www.Amazon.com for a free preview of her book The Criminal Justice Report Writing Guide for Officers.