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.
The measure will be sponsored by two of the Legislature’s leading figures on criminal justice issues: Rep. Dennis Baxley, chair of the House Judiciary Committee; and Sen. Thad Altman, who is a member of both the Senate Criminal Justice Committee and the Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice. The proposals were developed by the Smart Justice Alliance over the past several months, including at a Justice Summit held in December in Orlando.
“I am firmly convinced that Florida can take a better approach to how we deal with non-violent offenders, so that we can move them away from a life of crime and onto the path of productive, law-abiding lives,” Rep. Baxley said. “The ideas contained in this legislation will make a meaningful difference – not just in the lives of offenders, but more importantly in the lives of Floridians who might otherwise become their future crime victims.”
Key to the reforms will be working with non-violent offenders early in their criminal careers to provide treatment, which can eliminate underlying issues that lead to criminal activity for a large portion of these offenders. The legislation will also help provide these prisoners with the educational/vocational tools to get productive jobs after their release so they can live law-abiding lives, which would enhance public safety and avoid the expense of arresting, prosecuting and incarcerating these same individuals again.
“We want to work hand-in-hand with the Department of Corrections to give our criminal justice system the means to focus on the most serious criminals. Part of this effort means providing the tools to deal with non-violent offenders in a smarter way – one that’s designed to keep them out of trouble, and out of prison. We believe this legislation is an important step in the right direction,” said Barney Bishop, president and CEO of the Florida Smart Justice Alliance.
The legislation has cleared the bill drafting process but does not yet have a bill number. Among its provisions, it would:
• Identify which types of inmates could be considered for these services, focusing on non-violent felony offenders who are in the last three years of their sentences
• Require the Department of Corrections to establish one or more correctional re-entry facilities, dedicated specifically to providing substance abuse treatment, mental health treatment, expanded work release opportunities and educational/vocational and other services to help this group of prisoners acquire the tools to live within the law
• Make no change in the state’s requirement that all prisoners serve at least 85 percent of their sentences before being considered for release; the bill would not lead to the early release of prisoners
• Establish 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
“The people of Florida expect us to always be looking for innovative ways to protect them without breaking the bank,” Sen. Altman said. “This legislation will move us in a smarter direction so we can focus our limited resources on the serious criminals who pose a greater threat to society.”
Bishop said the Smart Justice Alliance will also support a requirement for electronic monitoring of all inmates who are allowed to travel outside prison walls for work release jobs. That idea, which Governor Rick Scott has also advocated, will be addressed in the appropriations process.
Bishop cited Department of Corrections statistics that show 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. He said this perpetuates the cycle of inmates being released without treatment and, as a result, returning to criminal activity – and then returning to prison. Three of the top five reasons individuals are being sent to prison are for non-violent felonies, the type of inmates who could benefit the most from the reforms contained in the legislation. The proposed legislation will provide treatment services above and beyond the 7,500 treatment slots currently being served.