Better handling of non-violent felons in Florida

March 13, 2013  |  No Comments  |  by Barney Bishop  |  Columns

From the Sun Sentinel

The Florida Smart Justice Alliance is promoting legislation this year to enhance public safety while saving millions of tax dollars. Yet special interests have distorted the debate. It’s time to set the record straight.

Non-violent felons make up a significant portion of Florida’s inmate population. Most have substance abuse or mental health problems or both. They’re not hard-core criminals who happen to use drugs; they are drug addicts who commit crimes to feed their habits.

Without the tools to live successfully in the world, these inmates are likely to turn back to crime; 27 percent return to prison within three years.

Smart Justice is about making all of us safer by providing these inmates things like behavioral health-care treatment in prison, help getting a GED, training in job skills and help obtaining a government-issued identification card so they can get jobs. What the Smart Justice Alliance is not about is releasing prisoners early or weakening the requirement that felons serve at least 85 percent of their sentences.

The Alliance recently presented a proposal to the Florida Legislature to provide such treatment. Opponents came out of the woodwork with a barrage of misinformation.

They said these prisoners would not be treated in prisons (false) and that treatment programs would not be staffed with certified law enforcement officers (also false). They said the Florida Department of Corrections would no longer control which prisoners receive treatment (false). They said our proposal is prison privatization (false), and the treatment regimens are not successful (false).

The truth is that under our proposal, all prisoners would be housed in one of three secure state prisons. These facilities, constructed with taxpayer-financed bonds, have sat unused for almost a year.

Unlike what our opponents say, the DOC will still perform each inmate’s initial assessment and determine which felons receive treatment. Finally, critics suggest these ideas reflect a “soft” approach to crime. A plan that steers low-level offenders away from crime and frees up resources to concentrate on more serious criminals is not soft on crime.

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