In a misguided and shortsighted policy decision, Gov. Rick Scott vetoed legislation that contained a proven method for rehabilitating prison inmates and reducing Florida's high recidivism rate -- substance abuse treatment. Even the Legislature's tough-on-crime conservatives support this sound public policy.
The measure passed unanimously in the Senate and by a 112-4 margin in the House. With those overwhelming margins, the Legislature should override the veto at the next opportunity.
Years in the making, the legislation was a modest reform that only permitted non-violent and well-behaved drug addicts to enter treatment after serving half their sentences but remaining in state custody while in a re-entry program. Only an estimated 350 inmates would currently qualify, this out of prison population that has soared to 100,000.
But the governor rejected this attempt to reduce prison costs and recidivism, citing public safety. In his veto statement, Scott wrote: "Justice to victims of crime is not served when a criminal is permitted to be released early from a sentence imposed by the courts. This bill 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."
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That's somewhat disingenuous since the bill required a minimum of six months in a re-entry program. Florida's harsh 85 percent mandate does not allow for exceptions and places an expensive burden on taxpayers.
The governor's contention about public safety misses the mark, too. Upon completing substance abuse treatment while also receiving educational benefits, freed inmates would be much better equipped to re-enter society as productive members.
Ironically, last year Scott signed legislation that made more nonviolent offenders eligible for drug courts and addiction treatment programs, with the expectation that the state would save money by avoiding expensive prison terms. That measure also passed the Legislature with near unanimous passage, with only one negative vote in the House.
Rep. Darryl Rouson, whose House District 55 includes portions of Manatee and Sarasota counties, has long championed drug treatment programs and co-sponsored the House version of the vetoed bill.
In a rebuttal to the veto, Rouson stated: "We should never be soft on violent crime or real crime. HB 177 is a step toward what some are calling 'Smart Justice.' What this law seeks to do is prevent avoidable and treatable recidivism by treating the underlying causes of those who offend and preventing them from a revolving pattern of doing additional harm to our community."
Conservatives such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist and former federal drug czar William Bennett endorse the "Right on Crime" movement, which operates under this declaration: "The Conservative Case For Reform."
One of the organization's priorities is substance abuse, framing the issue with this statement:
"In 2006, the United States arrested approximately 1.89 million people for drug-related offenses, up from 581,000 in 1980. Many of these offenders were incarcerated for non-violent crimes. They were not immediate threats to public safety, but it was in society's best interest to ensure that they stopped abusing drugs. Taxpayers are entitled to ask whether incarceration is accomplishing that goal."
Florida's Legislature acted on those very ideas with a modest measure that a conservative governor dedicated to small government and cost controls should have embraced. With a veto override, the Legislature would remind him that public safety can be served with drug treatment programs.