The Miami Herald

Early release of nonviolent offenders is smart justice

In what could have been the ultimate “pilot project” for fewer than 400 inmates (out of 100,000 in state prison), the Republican-led Florida Legislature passed a bill to help “nonviolent offenders” who are substance abusers reenter society. This bold step reflects an emerging budget, political, policy and bipartisan consensus some call “smart justice.” Florida’s most credible government watch-dog group, Florida TaxWatch and its Center for Smart Justice, supported the bill as a good start. The legislation was sponsored by Democratic Rep. Ari Porth and Republican Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, both from Broward County.

It directed the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) to administer a “nonviolent offender” reentry program designed to divert these inmates from extended incarceration when a reduced sentence followed by intensive substance abuse treatment may have the same deterrent effect, rehabilitate the offender, and reduce recidivism.

Inmates must be a nonviolent offender, have served at least half of their sentence and be identified as having a need for substance-abuse treatment.

Building on existing reentry programs, the legislature tasked the FDOC to screen and select eligible offenders based on nine considerations: history of disciplinary reports; criminal history; severity of the offender’s addiction; criminal behavior related to substance abuse; participation in GED and other educational, technical, work, vocational, or self-rehabilitation programs; results of risk assessment; outcome of past participation in substance-abuse treatment programs; possibility of rehabilitation, and likelihood the program will achieve or exceed the same public safety, budget savings and reduced recidivism as continued incarceration.

The FDOC would notify the original prosecutor who could file an objection, and obtain the sentencing court’s approval. The court would consider any relevant facts — including the nine factors already considered by the FDOC — and these six additional criteria: prior evidence and sentencing report; record of arrests not resulting in convictions; other evidence of unlawful conduct or violence; family and community ties, employment history and mental health; likelihood of success; and likelihood of future criminal conduct.

The offender must successfully complete six months in the reentry program to include a “full substance abuse assessment” and an adult education program. Once completed, the offender is eligible for a sentence modification, release from prison and to be put on drug-offender probation.

Gov. Scott vetoed the bill, stating it “would permit criminals to be released after serving 50 percent of their sentences, thus creating an unwarranted exception to the rule that inmates serve 85 percent of their imposed sentences.”

Individual sheriffs and police chiefs supported the veto. It likely will serve as a “road map” as legislators consider this and other high-profile criminal justice and corrections issues during the 2013 session. Florida’s crime rate is down, and prisons are closing or consolidating to reflect 12,000 empty beds. The FDOC’s budget of almost $2.1 billion for fiscal year 2012 includes daily costs or “per diem” of between $43 and $54 to incarcerate an adult male. With another tight budget expected next year and corrections policy a top priority — inmate reentry for nonviolent offenders will continue to be hotly debated. The legislation was CS/CS/HB 177 sponsored by Democratic Rep. Ari Porth and Republican Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, both from Broward County.

Reggie Garcia, attorney, Tallahassee

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