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Lawmaker promotes early release for inmates

By Sascha Cordner

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/wfsu/local-wfsu-990728.mp3

Tallahassee, FL – A bill that would early release certain inmates who complete drug treatment programs had more than an hour of debate in a House committee earlier this week. Though the bill passed favorably, members of the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee say the bill's sponsor needs to rewrite his proposal if he wants it to head to the House floor.

Democratic Representative Ari Porth of Coral Springs says the bill targets non-violent offenders who deserve a second chance:

" With the idea that after they have served at least half of their sentence, if they have been identified by the DOC, as amenable to substance abuse treatment and if the initial sentencing judge signs off on believing their appropriate for both the safety of the public and they'll be appropriate to be back into the community, that they can participate in a re-entry program, back in the community, letting them out early."

Representative Porth says he did not expect that there was going to be much opposition, especially since a bill, like this one, passed in this same committee last year. However, when Frank Messersmith with the Florida Sheriff's Association strongly opposed the bill at the meeting, he opened the floodgates to an hour-long debate:

"Don't let people escape the punishment that they deserve! While the person in fact may be serving a charge in prison, that's a non-violent charge, they well could have a past of points in the system that got them in prison to be there that includes violence, so this is not necessarily non-violent offenders."

And, lawmakers, like Republican Representative Carlos Trujillo of Miami, agreed. He says the overall concept of helping offenders with drug rehabilitation is on the right track, but he cannot get on board with the bill as a whole:

"I worked as a prosecutor for four years, almost four years, in order for a person to go to Florida State Prison on a third degree, but non-violent felony, they have to have a ton of priors. You're looking at people that have had, it's not their first, their second, their third, their fourth, or their fifth chance. You're talking about people who are on their 17th and 20th. I'm not against giving people a second chance, but we're talking about people who have already had those."

Though most lawmakers voiced their opposition to the bill, the bill passed favorably 12 to 3. Trujillo was one of three "no" votes at the committee meeting. He was also among some of the lawmakers who felt uncomfortable with allowing the initial sentencing judge to re-sentence an inmate, so they can serve at least half of their sentence. That way, the bill does not violate a rule that all Florida inmates must serve at least 85-percent of their sentence before consideration for parole.

But, Mark Fontaine, the Executive Director of Florida Alcohol and Drug Abuse Association, disagreed. During his testimony at the meeting, he recounted a story of a woman he met, who graduated at the Lowell Correctional facility:

"This woman did this incredible presentation about recovery and about the change that has happened in her life as a result of this treatment program she was going through. She's the leader of the program, the volunteer leader of the program, she's won't be available for another four years to be considered to term out. She would be a perfect candidate for this program."

Democratic Representative John Julien of North Miami Beach also pleaded with lawmakers to pass the bill. He says it reminds him of the days when he grew up in Brooklyn in the 70s and 80s, and was also a reminder of how an officer during that time had an positive influence on someone like him as a kid:

"What a community police officer would do is exactly what this bill is attempting to do which is to look at an individual who is nonviolent and say you know what? Maybe you do deserve another opportunity.' And, I'm asking each and every single one of you to look very deep inside. Have you ever done something that you were not particularly proud of and you were given a second chance?"

In the end, the bill passed, but not before lawmakers talked to Representative Porth about suggested changes for his bill. At the meeting's end, Chair of the committee, Republican Representative Gayle Harrell of Port Saint Lucie said there was one suggestion in particular that most committee members were in favor of:

"There was also the suggestion that it be a pilot program, that the DOC is not capable of handling the assessment that would be necessary to do in order for the individual to be, to come through the system, and eventually come into that program, so there's a long way to go for the bill yet and I think Representative Porth is on the right track. He's willing to work with members and at the end of the day, he's going to come forth with a good bill."

And Representative Porth, the bill's sponsor, says he intends to make edits to his bill to move the bill forward:

"In the language in the bill, you have to serve 50-percent of your sentence before being reconsidered for re-entry. Representative Glorioso suggested that the numbers needs to be increased to perhaps 60-percent. That's something that we can consider. There were some other representatives that suggested that if they have any criminal history in the past that is of a violent nature they should not be considered and that is something that I am open to amending."

The Senate sponsor of the Bill is Republican Senator Ellyn Bogdanoff of Fort Lauderdale. The bill's next committee stop is the House Rule-making and Regulation Subcommittee.