THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, March 20, 2013…….The House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday passed a bill aimed at breaking the cycle of recidivism in Florida prisons by rehabilitating non-violent felons in the last three years of their sentences.
The so-called ‘smart justice’ bill was originally filed by Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, the committee chairman, and passed on a 12-6 vote.
The measure (PCB JDC 13-01) would provide behavioral health care treatment services to non-violent, third-degree felons who don’t traffic in narcotics. Its premise is that roughly half the state’s 100,000 prisoners are serving time for non-violent crimes and can be readied for re-entry into society without compromising public safety, thus slashing millions of dollars from the state corrections budget.
“Hold people accountable, absolutely,” Baxley said. “But when they respond to that, start offering a continuum and a platform to actually put them back to being constructive.”
Drugs are the number one reason for incarceration in Florida, applying to 24.8 percent of inmates. Property crimes are number three, affecting 15.1 percent of prisoners, and other non-violent crimes are the fifth-leading cause, affecting 8.1 percent.
Proponents of the measure described Florida prisons as a revolving door, with 32,555 new admissions this year – of which 14,000 are-offenders – and 33,073 released this year. Of those released, only 7,500 will have received some type of treatment.
But there was disagreement over whether treatment services should be provided by the state or by private companies.
Barney Bishop III, president and CEO of the Florida Smart Justice Alliance, said the state is unable to spend the same kind of money on treatment that private providers do.
Of DOC’s $2.1 billion budget, Bishop said, the agency spends $22 million a year on education, or 68 cents a day, and $6 million on substance abuse, or 19 cents a day.
“One private provider, Bridges of America, which has six programs in the state, they spend $5.24 a day on education,” he said. “And on substance abuse, they spend six dollars a day. So you’re spending dollars versus cents.”
Bishop is a lobbyist for Bridges of America, which operates faith-based re-entry centers that teach inmates work and life skills.
Former state Sen. Ron Silver opposed the bill on behalf of the Teamsters, who represent DOC employees.
“I don’t see what the rush is,” Silver said. “Do you want to give private enterprise the ability to do this, or do you want to give the good men and women of the Department of Corrections the ability to do so? I think they’re doing a heck of a job with what they got.”
But lawmakers quickly moved to support the measure.
“What can we do to help these inmates be more prepared to re-enter our society?” asked Rep. Marti Coley, R-Mariana. “I think this bill gives them tools to accomplish that.”
The bill also would help ensure that Florida-born inmates leave prison with an ID card or the information needed to secure one.
But it faces an uphill climb in the Senate, where Senate President Don Gaetz has said the state crime rate is at a 41-year low because of Florida’s get-tough-on-crime approach.