Bill Aimed At Helping Ex-Inmates Has Some Worried Over ‘Disciplinary’ Provision

Dec 13, 2013

Florida lawmakers are reconsidering a failed legislative effort last year aimed at reducing the chances of former inmates coming back into the state’s prison system. But, while most consider getting ex-inmates on the path to getting a job and a house a good thing, others say some parts of the bill need more work.

Identification Cards

As the state entertains re-entry initiatives aimed at reducing what’s called recidivism, or the number of former inmates coming back to prison, a big goal of the Florida Department of Corrections is the “Identification Card Project.”

When Florida inmates get to prison, they are issued an identification card, but it’s not really accepted outside the prison walls. If any inmate has an ID on them when they get locked up, like a driver’s license or social security card, it’s returned upon their release.

Obstacles Released Inmates Face

But, according to the department, many inmates do not bring an ID with them when they enter prison. Then, by the time, they get out, it’s either lost or expired, and they need to get something new. And, Florida Public Defender Bob Dillinger with the 6th Circuit says there are many obstacles in inmates’ way.

“Just to show you an idea the problems we run into, we used to go social security and get a print out that established the person had done some kind of work or had a social security history. We would then take that to DMV, who would issue the ID card with the birth certificate. Based on that, we’d go back to social security and they would give us an actual social security card," said Dillinger.

But, Dillinger says that whole process recently changed. That made it more difficult for an inmate to get an ID, which is needed to get a job or a house.

“About two months ago, social security decided they would not give us that little printout without the ID. So [laughs], yeah, we go to DMV, and they say without the social security printout, we can’t give you an ID. I mean, it’s the true Government Catch-22. We found some ways to work around that. But, that’s a big impact on poor people. We have to get them an ID,” he added.

Inmate Reentry Bill

That’s why Dillinger says he supports a bill brought forth by Altamonte Springs Republican Senator David Simmons in the Senate Criminal Justice Committee this past Monday.

“This bill requires the Department of Corrections to provide every Florida-born inmate with a certified copy of their birth certificate and a state identification card upon they’re release from prison. It also requires the Department of Corrections to assist inmates born outside the state of Florida with completing forms needed to apply for social security card, driver’s license, or state identification card,” said Simmons.

The bill allows the Corrections agency to work with the state’s Health Department and Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles to ensure every ex-inmate has an ID card and a copy of their birth certificate.  Simmons’ bill also directs the Florida Department of Corrections to continue its faith-and-character-based institutions. It also mandates all 17 institutions offer Alcoholics Anonymous and literacy training.

The bill has the support of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the Florida Public Defender Association, as well as the Florida Alcohol and Drug Abuse Association. There’s also a group of business leaders that look to find cost effective ways to improve public safety, the Florida Smart Justice Alliance.

Its President and CEO is Barney Bishop, and his group last year helped put a similar bill together that included creating a re-entry facility and asking the Department of Corrections to create incentives so private providers will want to participate. The bill got watered down several times—at times, even pitting Republicans against one another—and later got tied up in the committee process.

And, Bishop says his goal is still the same: rehabilitation for Florida inmates, which he estimates could save the state tens of millions of dollars.

“This is so important because these people need jobs. If they get a job, they’re not likely to recidivate. If they don’t recidivate, they don’t have new crime victims. If they don’t recidivate, they don’t go back to prison,” said Bishop.

Some Worry Over Provision In Bill

But, not everyone’s on board with the total bill. The measure contains a provision that the department must get all the necessary materials from inmates in order to obtain a birth certificate, including a photo. But, if the inmate fails to cooperate, it “may result in disciplinary action.” That didn’t sit well with Jacksonville Democratic Senator Audrey Gibson.

“I’m trying to understand what that disciplinary action looks like. Obviously, we’re trying to help someone to better themselves, but if they don’t necessarily want to take a picture, I’m not sure I understand why,” said Gibson.

Simmons says he’d be willing to work with Gibson to “tweak” that language, but Bishop says it may not be needed.

“Senator Gibson, to go to your question: First off, the language says the department may do disciplinary action. So, they don’t have to. And, if someone resisted for some good reason, I’m sure the department’s common sense will come through and they will do the right thing,” said Bishop.

Despite her reservations, Gibson along with five other Senators passed the bill unanimously. Still, Gibson says that part of the bill doesn’t make any sense. And, speaking to her fellow Democratic colleagues at a Caucus meeting, she says she  wants to work with the Department of Corrections and Senator Simmons….

“…to turn it into something positive so that cooperation would be much more forthcoming...And, I asked what does that disciplinary action look like? What is that? You’re’ going to keep someone longer because they don’t want to cooperate? That’s just ridiculous! Obviously, they must anticipate an issue, otherwise they wouldn’t have put it in the bill. But, I think we need to deal with it in a different way,” said Gibson.

Gibson says Senator Simmons’ commitment to “tweak” that language is what swayed her to vote for the bill. She hopes to have that done before its next stop, the Senate Judiciary Committee.

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.