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Could Major Prison Reforms Become A Reality In Florida Next Year?

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Making sure released inmates don’t come back to prison is a main goal for prison reform advocates not only on the federal level, but the state level as well. Florida, in recent years, has tried and failed to implement a series of prison reforms, particularly aimed at drug offenders.  But, that won’t deter those same advocates from bringing back those same reforms next year.

Mandatory Minimums

Florida has more than 102,000 inmates in its prisons, and about a third is expected to return to prison following their release. The state has searched for ways to save money by lowering its recidivism rate, in part by getting inmates the treatment needed to contribute to society.

Last year, a bill allowing non-violent offenders to have their sentences reduced if they completed drug rehab made it to Governor Rick Scott’s desk.  But Scott refused to sign it, citing the state’s rule mandating offenders serve 85-percent of their sentence before they’re eligible for parole.

Similar prison reforms came up again this year, including an idea that U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder recently announced he wants to implement on a federal level.

“I have mandated a modification of the Justice Department’s charging policy so that certain low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who have no ties to large-scale organization, gangs, or cartels will no longer be charged with offenses that impose draconian mandatory minimum sentences,” said Holder.

Holder says he wants to leave that discretion up to a judge, following a careful review process. That’s similar to a bill (HB 159) authored this past session by Plantation Democratic Representative Katie Edwards.

Edwards’ bill would have changed some of the state’s sentencing laws and allowed a judge to differentiate between drug traffickers who need to be put away and addicts who just need treatment.

“So, my bill responded to some of these concerns with our sky-rocketing costs of corrections and said let’s recalibrate and look at some different ways that we can let that first-time nonviolent offender who’s caught with just a few pills, raise the weight threshold, divert that person to drug court, get them treatment, and let the person that’s caught with 28 pills, let that individual face potentially three years in state jail,” said Edwards.

While it had bipartisan support in the House, Edwards’ bill died in the Senate. She hopes to bring the bill forward again in 2014.

But Edwards may find herself up against state prosecutors and law enforcement, who remain opposed to her approach. Florida Sheriff’s Association Executive Director Steve Casey says Edwards’ bill could hurt the progress the state has made in recent years in the war against prescription drugs. And he adds prosecutors already have that discretion:

“Not everybody who’s arrested for prescription drug trafficking is actually prosecuted for that. So, the state attorneys have the authority to review the case—to determine whether this individual is a first-time offender, whether they’re a non-violent offender, whether anyone has been harmed in this particular circumstance—and determine what diversion may be appropriate,” said Casey.

Rehabilitation and Re-entry

Instead, Casey argues the Department of Corrections needs more money to help inmates serve out their sentences and enter long-term treatment programs. But, Casey acknowledges that’s going to cost the state more money up front.

“If we’re talking about putting more programming into the facilities to address some of the issues that these folks have and the dollars aren’t here now, that might be viewed as a cost increase. We feel it’s kind of a wise investment to go ahead and address that problem head on and try to fix it as opposed to warehousing and release them back,” added Casey.

Barney Bishop and his group, the Florida Smart Justice Alliance, also wants to place an emphasis on re-entry and rehabilitation programs for inmates. But, his group’s approach is a bit different. Bishop convenes business leaders to find cost-effective ways to improve public safety.

Bishop’s group proposed creating a re-entry facility and asking the Department of Corrections to create incentives so private providers will want to participate.

The so-called “Smart Justice” proposal (SB 1032) was later watered down to exclude that component, leaving the measure with two parts: ID cards issued to inmates upon their release to make it easier for them to re-enter society and encouragement for the DOC to establish more faith and character-based institutions. The bill later died in committee. Bishop is in talks with a couple of lawmakers to try again next year, even though he still believes his original bill could save the state millions of dollars.

“So, there’s something there for the Republicans in fewer crime victims, and there’s something there for the Democrats that talks about helping people to not become criminals again. So, it’s not a soft-on-crime approach, it’s tough on crime. Let’s be tough on how we spend our money so we get our best bang for the buck," said Bishop.

Bishop anticipates some resistance from Shalimar Republican Representative Matt Gaetz, who was not a fan of the bill last session and chairs the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee.

Meanwhile, Edwards’ bill may have a better chance next year. She says she’s working with Gaetz. And, her Senate sponsor is Fleming Island Republican Senator Rob Bradley, who chairs the Senate Budget Committee for Criminal and Civil Justice Issues. The bill forecasts $20 million in savings over the next five years.

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.