Lawmakers Like Idea Behind "Smart Justice" Reforms, But Not The Name

Feb 1, 2013

Florida lawmakers are looking into a proposed initiative to rehabilitate non-violent inmates before they have a chance to reoffend. But, while many agree about the idea behind what’s called “Smart Justice reforms,” they’re not too happy with what the name implies.

“Why should the state spend billions of dollars to keep prisoners locked up, knowing that many of them have serious issues that need to be resolved and yet, were doing little to address these problems," asked Barney Bishop, the President and CEO of the Florida Smart Justice Alliance.

The Florida Smart Justice Alliance is an initiative developed by a number of business leaders to find cost-effective ways to improve public safety.

Bishop has already presented before the Criminal Justice Committees in both the House and Senate about ways to reduce the chance of inmates coming back to prison or what’s known as the recidivism rate.

“Today, only about 7,500 prisoners receive any treatment services whatsoever and that means about 75-percent of all returning prisoners don’t get much help at all. We give them $50 and a bus ticket and expect them to become law abiding citizens,” said Bishop.

And, he says one good step is to privatize work release centers, an idea that’s also part of Governor Rick Scott’s recent budget proposal.

“The unemployment rate of inmates at state work release centers is 75 percent. That’s a pretty good number. And, they’re recidivism rate is 32 percent," said Bishop.

"But, the employment rate at facilities run by the private sector is at 86 percent of them are employed and their collective recidivism rate is only 18 percent, which means significantly less crime victims in the future.”

However, some like Ron Silver with the Teamsters Union not only dislike the proposal, but also dislike the name. He says he’s a bit offended as a former state lawmaker who chaired Criminal Justices Committees in the House and Senate.

“When I look at the word Smart Justice, I take a little offense to that.  Not a lot, because I’m heartened by all this," said Silver.

"The bottom line is, that means what we were doing before was not smart…all the things that we did, but now we’re going to enter the phase of being smart. I think the better terminology is 'Smarter Justice,' rather than smart, because I think what we did before was pretty good.”

And, Senator Greg Evers, who now chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, somewhat agrees.

He says he liked hearing from both sides about their views on “Smart Justice reforms,” but he would rather use the term coined by Silver.

“I like that 'Smarter Justice' because I feel like the time that I’ve spent before has been Smart Justice. I’m just getting smarter now. It’s taking me awhile, but I’m getting there, okay," said Evers.

And, it didn’t get much better over in the Florida House.

“Let me confess this, I don’t like the name Smart Justice,” said Republican Representative Matt Gaetz.

Gaetz, who chairs the House Criminal Justice Committee, says he takes issue with that name.

“I don’t believe there is any association, lobbyist, political party, member of the Legislature that has quite cornered the market on what is ‘smart’ and to me, it seems a bit self-laudatory to self-identify with smart. It’s sort of like if I started the ‘Smart Legislative Caucus," said Gaetz.

"We would all want to be members of such a caucus, but yet we would have different ideas about what is and what’s not smart. And, I think that’s been the challenge in this movement.”

But, Bishop fired back with a response of his own.

“With respect to the chairman’s comment about it being self-laudatory, we have no problem that, and we think it’s a great name," said Bishop.

"And, frankly, we believe it is smart. And, ladies and gentleman, you were elected to think outside of the box to do what’s best for the state of Florida. And, I’m here to tell you on behalf of the Smart Justice, to do business the way we’ve always done it is not good enough anymore. We’re spending too much money and we don’t have good outcomes.”

Overall, lawmakers in both the House and Senate say they’re happy to look at the proposals and want to at least continue the conversation on the best thing for the inmates and the taxpayers as well. A proposal currently looking into ideas by the Smart Justice Alliance is being drafted in the House.

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