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

Barney Bishop photo for op edThe 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 in the world, these inmates are likely to turn back to crime – and 27 percent of them return to prison within three years, becoming a drain on society once again.

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). 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 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 qualified 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 fewer 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 Floridians are ready for this kind of reform, overwhelmingly supporting supervised work release (89 percent), cost-effective programs (84 percent) and a stronger probation system (74 percent).  Most importantly, more than three in four (78 percent) 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.


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Barney Bishop


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