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Watered Down 'Smart Justice' Bill Gets 'Gutted'; Takes Bill Sponsor By Surprise

The Senate version of an inmate re-entry bill looks a little different now. In some Florida lawmakers own words, it was essentially gutted at its second committee stop Thursday—A move that even took the bill’s sponsor by surprise. While the measure still cleared a Criminal Justice budget panel, it wound up pitting Republicans against Republicans.

It was Republican versus Republican in the Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Subcommittee Thursday, when it came to vetting an inmate re-entry bill sponsored by Republican Senator Thad Altman.

The so-called ‘Smart Justice’ bill allows for the state to provide identification cards for these inmates free of charge. That’s been touted as one of the major problems facing former inmates when they’re released from prison. It also encourages the department to develop faith-and-character based programs to help the inmates.

And, before Thursday’s committee meeting, the bill had already gone through some changes. That included eliminating a provision that the Florida Department of Corrections create re-entry facilities. Another provision allowed the department to establish incentives for the re-entry program to promote participation by private sector employees—a matter of serious concern for correctional employee unions.

“We have changed that to provide for in prison treatment followed by community treatment supervision for nonviolent offenders. Again, this is to help in the reentry process. It leaves up to the department how best to deliver the in prison treatment. The past bill we also eliminated the language to preference to certain providers,” said Altman.

Still, that did not stop the panel’s chair Republican Senator Rob Bradley from adding two amendments that would more than cut the already watered down bill in half.

“I think that the best way to move Senator Altman’s bill forward is to scale it back and focus on those things that have an opportunity for passage on the full Floor,” said Bradley.

So, what does the bill look like now? Some Republicans, like Senator Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, had that question on their minds for Senator Bradley.

“So, with your amendment, you’re taking out pretty much most of the bill. What’s left in," asked Diaz de la Portilla. 

"The ID portion. Well, there’s two amendments. Yes, that’s my intention to take out most of the bill with the exception of the ID," Bradley replied.

"So, when you take this amendment and the next one, basically all that’s left is the ID portion," stated Diaz de la Portilla.

"And, the faith and character based programs," added Bradley.

What was taken out included a provision that made sure every inmate had the skills and training needed to go back out into society within two years of their upcoming release.

There was also a provision that could allow an eligible non-violent offender to have a split sentence, like allowing the inmate to perform community service in the last year of their sentence. Today, Florida inmates are required to serve 85-percent of their sentence.

But, the bill’s sponsor, Senator Altman did not appear to approve of the changes. While Altman admits he and Bradley had a brief conversation about the amendments, he says he did not see them because there was a glitch in the system. Having seen the amendments now, Altman says he feels like the essence of the bill is gone.

“Unfortunately, after reading this, it pretty much guts the major intent of the bill. So, obviously, I would have to view this is as an unfriendly amendment,” said Altman.

Later, Altman reluctantly agreed to the amendments to move the bill along, with the condition that he speak to Senator Bradley following the meeting.

And, so, the bill passed unanimously 13 to 0 out of the Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Subcommittee Thursday. It has one more stop to go before it heads to the Senate Floor.

Meanwhile, this could set up a battle over in the House, after the measure’s House companion has not been amended to reflect these recent changes. The bill sponsored by Republican Representative Dennis Baxley of Ocala has already passed its only committee, the Justice Appropriations Subcommittee—a panel Baxley chairs.

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

Sascha Cordner has more than ten years of public radio experience. It includes working at NPR member station WUFT-FM in Gainesville for several years. She's worked in both radio and TV, serving in various capacities as a reporter, producer and anchor. She's also a graduate of the University of Florida with a bachelor's degree in telecommunications. She is the recipient of 15 awards from the Associated Press, Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), and Edward R. Murrow. Her award-winning stories include her coverage on the infamous “Dozier School for Boys” and a feature titled "Male Breast Cancer: Lost in the Sea of Pink." Currently, Sascha serves as the host and producer of local and state news content for the afternoon news program "All Things Considered" at WFSU. Sascha primarily covers criminal justice and social services issues. When she's not reporting, Sascha likes catching up on her favorite TV shows, singing and reading. Follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter:@SaschaCordner.