“Smart Justice” Reform Proposal Unveiled

February 20, 2013  |  No Comments  |  by Barney Bishop  |  News

Listen Again from WFSU

Lowering the chances of former inmates going back to prison is the goal of a new proposal filed in the Florida Legislature. State lawmakers are partnering with business backed group, Florida Smart Justice Alliance, to rehabilitate nonviolent inmates to reduce the number of crimes.

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“Smart Justice” Bill Would Rehab Felons, Faces Opposition

February 20, 2013  |  No Comments  |  by Barney Bishop  |  News


THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, February 19, 2013…….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.

Smart Justice Alliance, key lawmakers unveil legislation to break cycle of recidivism

February 20, 2013  |  No Comments  |  by Barney Bishop  |  News

The Florida Smart Justice Alliance and two key legislators today unveiled common-sense, cost-effective legislation designed to introduce groundbreaking reforms to Florida’s correctional system. The measure will reduce the cost of operating the prison system while enhancing public safety, by reducing the rate of offenders cycling in and out of Florida prisons.

Read more on the SaintPetersBlog

New ‘Smart Justice’ bill would offer treatment for drug offenders

February 20, 2013  |  No Comments  |  by Barney Bishop  |  News

A new proposal announced Tuesday—dubbed “Smart Justice”—would change the way Florida deals with non-violent drug offenders.

The bill seeks to reduce recidivism by redirecting some non-violent offenders from high-security prison into re-entry and drug treatment programs.

“It’s time that we change the way we’re doing business,” said Sen. Thad Altman, R-Viera, who is co-sponsoring the measure. “We’re in the modern days, the 21st century. But in many ways our criminal justice system is still in the Middle Ages.”

Read more on the Miami Herald Blog:

Smart Justice legislation: A better approach for Florida’s citizens, taxpayers

February 7, 2013  |  No Comments  |  by Barney Bishop  |  Columns

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

Non-violent felons make up a significant portion of Florida’s inmate population. Most of them 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 in order to feed their habits.

Without the tools to live successfully out in the world, these inmates are likely to turn back to crime – and 27 percent of them return to prison within three years, where they again are a drain on society.

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 productive job skills, and help obtaining a government-issued ID card so they can get a job. 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 in prison.

The Alliance recently presented a proposal to the Legislature to provide such treatment. Opponents, primarily from unions representing existing prison employees, came out of the woodwork with a barrage of misinformation designed to stop any changes to how business is being done right now. They said these prisoners would not be treated in prisons (which is false) and that the treatment programs would not be staffed with certified law enforcement officers (false). They said the Florida Department of Corrections would no longer control which prisoners would receive treatment (false). That 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 prisons already built by the state. These facilities have sat empty and unused for almost a year, built with taxpayer-financed bonds that you and I must still repay. Our idea would be to have providers chosen through a competitive process treat qualifying offenders there, giving these inmates the means to live law-abiding lives.

Under our proposal and in accordance with state law, security staff would have to be certified correctional officers and treatment would be provided by staff specifically trained to do this kind of work. The union representing state correctional officers – the Teamsters – says its members can perform the same treatment work with the same success, but DOC’s own statistics tell a completely different story. The department’s website shows that the recidivism rate for inmates in state-operated programs is higher than those in private programs, and their future employment rate is lower. Correctional officers are very good at guarding inmates, but they simply are not trained to treat inmates’ mental health and substance abuse problems.

Unlike what our opponents say, DOC will still perform each inmate’s initial assessment and then determine which felons receive treatment services. They will be non-violent offenders nearing the end of their sentences, generally with less than 36 months to go. All felons will still be in secure prisons. If an inmate is eligible for work release, the department will still make that decision – and felons on work release will be fitted with electronic locator bracelets.

Finally, critics suggest that 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. In fact, an independent public opinion poll in December showed that the people of Florida are ready for this kind of reform, overwhelmingly supporting supervised work release (89%), cost-effective programs (84%), and a stronger probation system (74%). Most importantly, more than three in four (78%) agree an elected official can support these cost-effective proposals and still be considered “tough on crime.”

The time has come to change the way we do business in Florida. Other states, including Texas, Georgia and South Carolina, have already implemented treatment programs with successful outcomes. Staunch conservatives like Rep. Dennis Baxley of Ocala and Sen. Thad Altman of Titusville are among the foremost supporters of Smart Justice ideas in Florida.

They understand that taxpayers deserve better outcomes, lower recidivism and enhanced public safety. We can accomplish all of this by taking a smarter approach to justice.

Front & Center: Getting Florida smart on justice

February 7, 2013  |  No Comments  |  by Barney Bishop  |  News

Orlando Sentinel Editorial Writer Darryl E. Owens conducted an email interview with Barney Bishop, president and CEO of Florida Smart Justice Alliance, about the future of reforms here.

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Get out, stay out of prison

February 5, 2013  |  No Comments  |  by Barney Bishop  |  News

Tallahassee Democrat: Flanked by scores of Tallahassee police officers, Leon sheriff’s deputies and state Department of Corrections staff, Florida prisons chief Michael Crews announced the number of re-offending prisoners had dropped from 33.8 percent in 2003 to 27.6 percent in 2008.

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