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Prison Unions Skeptical as Bipartisan 'Smart Justice Bill' Filed in Legislature

February 18, 2013 - 6:00pm

As many as 1,200 prisoners could get a new lease on life if two of the Florida Legislature's leading figures on criminal justice issues have their way; one of the state's largest unions is supporting the gist of the reform package, but taking strong issue with its prison privatization component.

"That is our ultimate objective: fewer crimes and fewer crime victims, Rep Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, told reporters gathered in front of the House chamber Tuesday afternoon. Simply by doing some things smarter with people who are in our system, we could reduce those recidivism numbers."

Baxley is leading a Halloween-coalition of some of the Legislatures most conservative and most liberal members, who are backing a bill drafted with the assistance of the Florida Smart Justice Alliance, a bipartisan coalition that for years has advocated prison reforms that supporters say will reduce recidivism and the costs of operating the state prison system.

At Tuesdays press conference, Baxley, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, was joined by Senate sponsor Thad Altman, R-Melbourne, and Democratic Reps. Darryl Rouson of St. Petersburg and Linda Stewart of Orlando. Together they introduced the Correctional Re-entry Treatment Act, informally titled the Smart Justice Bill. The measure has cleared the bill drafting process but has not yet received a number.

Recidivism is a direct measure of our efforts to be exactly what [we say we have]: a Department of Corrections, not just a Department of Incarceration, Baxley continued.

If enacted, the bill would provide behavioral health services and vocational training to hundreds more prisoners than the 7,500 currently being rehabilitated. Though the Florida Department of Corrections (DOC) always has statutory authority to enact these reforms on its own, the Smart Justice Bill would make these reforms mandatory, though the extent of their implementation would depend on how much is annually appropriated to the DOC by the Legislature.

Specifically, the bill:

  • Identifies which types of inmates can be considered for these services, focusing on nonviolent felony offenders who are in the last three years of their sentences. The bill also specifies which violent felons are ineligible. DOC statistics show that about 48 percent of state prisoners are nonviolent offenders, two in five new admissions to the prison system each year are reoffenders, and only 23 percent of the 32,000 inmates released every year receive any kind of treatment.
  • Requires the DOC to establish one or more correctional re-entry treatment facilities (CRTFs), dedicated specifically to providing substance abuse treatment, mental health treatment, expanded work release opportunities, and educational/vocational and other services. Barney Bishop, president and CEO of Smart Justice, said there are currently three brand-new prisons in Baker, Gadsden, and Miami-Dade counties sitting empty and capable of being transformed into CRTFs. Each can fit up to 400 inmates.
  • Makes no change to state laws that require all prisoners to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences before being considered for release. Gov. Rick Scott vetoed a smart justice bill last year precisely because it contained an early-release provision; Bishop emphasized that no such provision is contained in this years version.
  • Establishes a mechanism to provide inmates with official state identification cards upon their release, to make it possible for them to find jobs and housing opportunities.

"It's no secret that our criminal justice system is pretty much a revolving door; something has to be done, Altman told reporters, saying that these provisions have been tried in other states and in some cases have reduced recidivism by as much as 33 percent. Our criminal justice system is doing the best they can do with the tools we give them; its time we change those tools. Were in the 21st century, but in many ways our criminal justice and punishment system is still in the Middle Ages.

"If you always do what you've always done, you will always get what you've always got, Rouson echoed. When you have captured a person's body, at the same time we must capture their minds and their souls and give them treatment."

A provision sure to cause controversy is one that will bid out the new CRTFs to private companies.

These services can all be provided by the correctional system itself; its very important that these services be provided in a secure environment with certified personnel, Doug Martin, a lobbyist for the Florida chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), tells Sunshine State News. A private setting requires an incredible amount of oversight, just to have basic accountability.

Martin said the current system provided more flexibility for state government.

When the state has cut the cost of mental health in mental institutions, it was unable to cut the same cost in its private institutions because those private institutions were governed by contracts, he explains.

Still, Martins reaction to the new bill was not entirely negative.

Florida does need to stop incarcerating so many nonviolent prisoners; it needs to provide education and drug treatment and job training to inmates before they are released, so that they can become productive members of society.

But this does not need to be incorporated into the for-profit incarceration model.

Reach Eric Giunta at or at (954) 234-9116.

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