Palm Beach Post
– August 12, 2013
By John Kennedy, Palm Beach Post Capital Bureau
TALLAHASSEE — The Obama administration’s policy changes Monday aimed at reducing prison spending and fostering what some officials say is more fairness in the criminal justice system have their supporters in Florida.
But efforts to deploy a similar approach statewide have met resistance from Gov. Rick Scott and the state Legislature.
“It has been a tough sell in Florida,” said Barney Bishop, president and CEO of the Florida Smart Justice Alliance, which advocates expanding inmate drug-treatment, education and job-training programs.
“It’s clear that we don’t have a Department of Corrections. We have a department of incarceration that cost taxpayers $2.4 billion last year,” Bishop said.
The alliance is led by two of the state’s largest business organizations, Florida TaxWatch and Associated Industries of Florida. Advocates say that by cutting inmate recidivism, taxpayers could reap tremendous savings which could be steered into education, social services and other programs.
Two in five offenders entering prison each year are repeat offenders, according to the Florida Department of Corrections. And fewer than one-quarter of inmates receive any treatment or training before their release.
Scott vetoed legislation in 2012 that would have allowed nonviolent felons to receive drug counseling because it was seen as a means for some inmates to avoid serving the mandatory minimum 85 percent of their sentences.
Legislation last spring would have ensured that Florida inmates leaving prison receive an official state identification card or copy of their birth certificate and Social Security card, documents seen as improving their chances of getting a job, housing and having prescriptions filled. The so-called inmate re-entry bill also pushed the Department of Corrections to increase the number of faith-based prisons in Florida.
The measure sailed through the House on a 116-1 vote, but failed to advance in the Senate.
The law enforcement community and unions representing corrections officers have warned against some of the smart justice steps, crediting years of tougher sentencing as leading to a 41-year low in Florida’s crime rate.
Lawmakers also have been cautious about softer sentencing, fearing it could potentially backfire.
Georgia, Texas, Kentucky and Ohio are among the states that are embracing a more nuanced style of sentencing, easing back on the stiff, mandatory minimum sentences that spread nationwide during the 1990s.
The Smart Justice Alliance said that among the taxpayer costs, $300 million was spent in 2011 to incarcerate 16,000 drug offenders in Florida. The state’s prison population has slightly more than 100,000 inmates.
Robert Weissert, of Florida TaxWatch, said getting policymakers to abandon a lock-them-up mentality represents a major cultural shift.
“It’s like turning a battleship on dry land,” Weissert said. “But you can feel that the wind is shifting.”