Florida legislators want to improve criminal justice system

SARASOTA -- With Florida's correctional institutions being called on several cases of abuses of power, more than a dozen state legislators discussed the importance Wednesday of increasing prisoner services, including education and treatment for mental health and substance abuse while also changing focus and funding more to being proactive and using diversion programs.

Wrapping up the 2015 Justice Summit hosted by the Florida Smart Justice Alliance at the Hyatt in Sarasota, addressing the issues plaguing the state criminal justice system took top billing.

Barney Bishop, chief executive officer of Florida Smart Justice Alliance, act

ed as moderator for the 13 state representatives and senators.

Only about 23 percent of roughly 30,000 inmates who leave prison every year in Florida receive services, Bishop said.

"They need more money to provide education, substance abuse (treatment) and mental health services because we have 101,000 people in prison," Bishop said. "About 87 percent of them are going to be out within five years. About 13 percent are going to be in for a very long time."

For state Sen. Greg Evers, R-Pensacola, providing services to released inmates is important.

"There are certain inmates we are just mad at, and there are some inmates we are scared of," Evers said. "The ones that we are scared of we lock them up and throw away the key."

Inmates need to leave prison with a profession or trade, have home skills such as balancing a checkbook and have a support system on the outside, he said.

"I feel like it's going to take some upfront money on the front end," Evers said. "But then in a few years we are going to realize the same savings that we will be able to get from that because these folks will not be coming back to prison and we will unite families."

State Rep. Dane Eagle, R-Cape Coral, agreed prisoners who will be released really need rehabilitation.

"Perhaps they didn't have the right upbringing," Eagle said. "Some a slap on a wrist is all they need to put the fear of God back in to them to say alright we are never doing that again. Some folks they had the right upbringing and the right skills that they need and they need to just get back on the right track out there."

Locking them up together with the hardcore 13 percent of prison lifers and not providing services, however, often leaves them worse off than when they went in, he added.

The two most important inmate needs are education and help to resolve issues of substance abuse and mental health.

"We do not as a society take mental health issues from the very beginning of an individual's life as seriously as we do physical health issues and we need to change that prospective," said state Rep. Jimmie Smith, R-Inverness.

State Rep. Rehwinkel Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee, said Florida ranks 49th in the United States in the amount of money spent on mental health.

"It is really inhumane to place someone who is mentally ill in a prison population," said Vasilinda. "It is not only inefficient, ineffective and expensive but it's really not humane."

Lawmakers also discussed how the Department of Juvenile Justice has turned its focus to prevention and diversion.

"All of the stuff we are talking about are the resources for the adult community, mental health, re-entry, all of those things can be more manageable if we have less than 100,000 people in our prisons and the way to that is to keep our young people out of there, too," said state Rep. Ray Pilon, R-Sarasota.

Jessica De Leon, Herald law enforcement reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7049. You can follow her on Twitter @JDeLeon1012.