State News
6:24 pm
Wed March 20, 2013

House Panel Debate About 'Smart Justice' Bill Turns Into Battle: Public Vs. Private

Listen to the story!

A Florida House panel has cleared a bill that seeks to keep non-violent offenders from re-offending and going back to prison. But, while most provisions had much approval, the discussion later devolved into a matter between public vs. private operation of the inmate re-entry facilities.

Making sure eligible nonviolent offenders do not go back to prison and are treated at a re-entry facility through the state’s drug treatment programs is the goal of the legislation. Convicts would get treatment while in prison and while on probation outside of prison. The bill’s House sponsor is Republican Representative Dennis Baxley in his capacity as chair of the House Judiciary Committee, the panel that vetted the bill Wednesday.

“This is designed to get those inmates that have not committed any violent offense, but have a substance abuse problem—the treatment they need for successful re-entry back into society,” said Baxley.

One provision in the bill allows for the state to provide identification cards for these inmates free of charge. Baxley says one of the biggest obstacles ex-inmates face is trying to get ID cards, upon their release from prison. So, he wants to provide a way to make it easier for these former offenders.

“An ID card is absolutely needed if they’re going to get a job, if they’re going to get a place to live, and if they’re going to successfully re-enter into society,” said Barney Bishop.

Bishop is with the Florida Smart Justice Alliance, an initiative that grew out of an idea by a number of business leaders to find cost-effective ways to improve public safety.

Later, after he started praising the bill, he brought up contrasts between the Department of Corrections and private providers, like Bridges of America, a group he’s associated with.

And, that caught the ear of Democratic Representative Elaine Schwartz of Hollywood.

“You brought up something that hasn’t been mentioned at all: the word private, which really indicates what’s happening here, I think, and so, am I correct in assuming this is in fact privatization," asked Schwartz.

“Representative, no it’s not! Because these programs already exist. And, any deep analysis of this bill would show you that there is no privatization here. There is no increase in privatization,” replied Bishop.

But, according to the Legislature’s analysis of the bill, it does allow the department to “establish incentives for the reentry program to promote participation by private sector employers within the program.”

And, a representative from Bridges of America, Jim DeBeaugrine, also testified before the committee, recommending that the re-entry services should be provided in a facility dedicated to that purpose.

“And, that is why we have proposed separately that you consider the Governor’s recommendations to reopen the reentry centers, those empty 400-bed facilities. There’s one in Gadsden County, Baker County, and South Miami-Dade. And, we will argue to the Appropriations Committee that one of those facilities should be operated by private providers who have direct experience doing this," DeBeaugrine.

But, Ron Silver with the Teamsters Union, a group that represents thousands of correctional officers, says he has a huge problem with that

“Let’s keep it within the Department of Corrections. Let’s give the Department of Corrections the resources to do the job because they’re the ones that are experts in our security situation. They’re trained in security.  I don’t know what private corporations are trained in as far as security is concerned, but they don’t have the certification of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, like our Department of Corrections people do,” said Silver.

But, Republican Representative Marti Coley says she wants to get back to the true goal of the bill.

“I am excited to help these inmates be more prepared to re-enter society. I do not see this bill privatizing our prisons, and that’s what I feel like I heard today and that’s why I’m a little frustrated," said Coley.

The proposal became a committee bill, after it passed out of the House Judiciary Committee on a 12 to 6 vote, with some Republicans voting against the proposal.

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