Florida business lobby: Don't build prisons, release inmates instead

As lawmakers grapple with the need to build nearly 20 new Florida prisons in the next five years on a cratering state budget, a powerful business lobby is proposing what they acknowledge is a radical idea: stop building beds and release nonviolent inmates instead.

The group, Associated Industries of Florida, has released a position paper calling on lawmakers to halt the scheduled construction of three new prisons, each with the ability to house 1,300 inmates. Building the prisons is expected to cost $300 million, plus an additional $81 million per year in operating costs.

The Department of Corrections could forgo the prison construction by releasing about 3,900 inmates, the group recommends. The prisoners should be near the end of their term, and the release should not include any violent felons, pedophiles or sexual predators, the statement says.

Barney T. Bishop, Associated Industries' president, acknowledges that some conservatives might find it ''left wing for a business association executive'' to support the release of prison inmates. But ''it doesn't make sense to me,'' he said, ``to build those prisons.''

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