'Smart Justice' bill: Florida bill would beef up rehabilitation of non-violent felons

Bill faces opposition

TALLAHASSEE -- Lawmakers Tuesday filed a bill aimed at breaking the cycle of recidivism in Florida prisons by beefing up the rehabilitation of non-violent felons in the last three years of their sentences.

But the measure may face resistance from the top: Senate President Don Gaetz is skeptical.

The "smart justice" measure by Rep. Dennis Baxley, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and Sen. Thad Altman, a member of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, would prepare offenders for release with educational and vocational training and treatment for substance abuse and mental illness.

Altman, who sits on the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, said it's smarter to give ex-felons alternatives to further crime.

"We're in the modern days, in the 21st century, but in many ways our criminal justice and punitive system is still in the middle ages," he said.

But the measure appears to face an uphill climb. Gaetz told the News Service in an interview later Tuesday he had reservations about such an approach.

"We're at a 41-year low in our crime rate in the state of Florida, so apparently what we've done not only is working, but it reversed what really was a crime wave in our state," Gaetz said. "And we did that by being tough on criminals. If it's working, I'm not sure we should change it."

Baxley agreed that strict sentencing guidelines had served the state well, but said there was room for improvement.

"In Florida we're known as being tough on crime," he said. "We think the accountability measures are a big part of why we've seen a reduction in crime, and we don't depart from that. But we've also looked around at other states and looked at our own numbers, and we realize that there are some things we could do to reduce the number of crimes committed by recidivist inmates. That is our ultimate objective: fewer crimes and fewer crime victims."

Earlier this month, the Department of Corrections announced that the percentage of inmates who commit another crime within three years of release had dropped to 27.6 percent for those released since 2008.  It used to be 33 percent. DOC Secretary Mike Crews credited a change in his agency's culture, with more focus on helping inmates overcome the conditions that helped land them behind bars.

According to DOC data, two in five offenders entering prison each year are re-offenders, but fewer than one-fourth of inmates receive treatment to help them after their release.

Barney Bishop, president and CEO of the Florida Smart Justice Alliance, said the bill would not reduce the length of inmates' sentences. Under state law, inmates must serve 85 percent of their time.

"Critics, mainly unions with protectionist agendas…will tell you that this legislation would violate the 85 percent rule or lead to the early release of inmates," Bishop said. "This is not true in any way or fashion. They will tell you that this bill privatizes prisons. That's not true, either."

Altman said the bill would not have a substantial fiscal impact, and in fact would cut costs.

Bishop said the state wouldn't have to build new facilities.

"There are right now three brand-new prisons sitting empty around the state," he said. "And yet the state is paying the debt payment on those."

Bishop is a lobbyist for Bridges of America, a private provider of faith-based re-entry centers that teach inmates work and life skills.

"Our hope is that the private sector, in a competitive bid process, will have the opportunity to
operate those three facilities," he said.

Gaetz said he always likes to follow the money.

"Who would profit from this so-called 'smart justice'?" he asked. "Are there companies waiting in the wings, just ready to have private-sector contracts and get millions of dollars of taxpayers' money so that they can be in charge of rehabilitating criminals? I think that there probably are.

"My understanding is that the meetings that have been held about smart justice, most of the people in the audience have worn $3,000 suits," he added.

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