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How Much Support Does "Smart Justice" Bill Really Have?

A Republican-backed proposal to reduce the number of former inmates going back into Florida’s prisons is now taking shape in the form of a bill. But, some unions and even some Republicans may not be on board with the “Smart Justice” idea.

Republican Senator Thad Altman of Melbourne says the state can do more to help non-violent offenders who leave the prison system.

“Picture yourself riding a bus with $50 in your pocket and nothing else. You’ve just been released from prison. You’re a convicted felon. You have no support group. How long is that $50 going to last you? And, that’s what we’re doing to a lot of our inmates,” said Altman.

He says if the state doesn’t do much for the inmates when they leave, then they will likely revert back to old behaviors and go back to prison.

“It's no wonder we have such a high recidivism rate and it's no secret that our criminal justice system is pretty much a revolving door. Something has to be done," Altman added.

The aim is to make sure former inmates don’t come back to prison after they’re released.  So, Altman says he’s taking matter into his own hands, and sponsoring Senate Bill 1032 that would create at least one Correctional re-entry facility for eligible non-violent offenders who serve the last three years of their prison sentence. It would also provide them with government-issued ID cards upon release to make it easier for former inmates to find a job.

The so-called “Smart Justice” proposal is the work of the Florida Smart Justice Alliance, an initiative that’s the outgrowth of many business leaders brainstorming ideas about cost effective ways to do public safety.

The bill has several backers including its House sponsor Representative Dennis Baxley of Ocala, a Republican. It also got the support of incoming House Democratic Leader, Representative Darryl Rouson of St. Petersburg.

"If you always do what you've always done, you will always get what you've always got. And, in this instance, it's been broken. When you have captured a person's body at the same time we must capture their minds and their souls and give them treatment," said Rouson.

It also has the support of Barney Bishop, the President and CEO of the Florida Smart justice Alliance.

"Critics, mainly unions with protectionist agendas, want you to believe a lot of things that are simply not true. They will tell you that this legislation would violate the 85 percent rule or lead to the early release of inmates. This is not true in any way or fashion. They will tell you that this bill privatizes prisons. That's not true, either," said Bishop.

“Oh, it has everything to do with privatization,” remarked Ron Silver with the Teamsters Union, which represents thousands of correctional officers across the state.

Technically, the bill will not privatize prisons. But, the measure does allow for private providers to operate the correctional re-entry facilities intended to help the inmates re-enter society.

Silver says there’s no reason for the bill since the state is already doing good work now and there is no need for a private vendor to run any of the re-entry facilities.

“It does not reduce cost. It does not provide security for these communities, for these criminals that are going to be out and doing these work release programs. It doesn’t do anything different than what we’re doing right now. We have drug programs within the Department of Corrections right now. We have mental health programs," said Silver.

And, Senate President Don Gaetz may not be sold on the idea either. In an interview with the News Service of Florida, Gaetz says he’s not so sure the state needs to change what it’s doing so far. He pointed to Florida’s crime rate, which is at a 41-year low.

"So apparently what we've done not only is working, but it reversed what really was a crime wave in our state. And we did that by being tough on criminals.  If it's working, I'm not sure we should change it," said Gaetz.

Meanwhile, a spokeswoman from the Florida Department of Corrections says her agency is not ready to say at this time whether it’s for or against the proposal. But, she does point to one of the Governor’s budget recommendations, which the department praised. It’s for five and half million dollars to open the Gadsden Correctional Re-Entry Center with a targeted adult basic education and vocational focus.

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