Barney Bishop column: Gov. Scott’s veto of HB 117 – ‘smart justice’ for nonviolent felons – was right thing to do

By on May 9, 2012

For the third time in two weeks there has been an article about Governor Rick Scott’s recent veto of HB 177 by Sen. Ellyn Bognadoff (R) and Rep. Ari Porth (D).  This bill which would allow for some nonviolent felons to be diverted to substance abuse treatment was passed with only four negative votes between both chambers.  You would think that two of these writers, who work for newspapers, would have read the Governor’s veto message and did more exploring than just calling the sponsors, who of course are going to be upset that it didn’t pass muster.  The third writer was from the ACLU and certainly needed little encouragement to criticize our Governor.

So, let’s get the true facts out on the table.  First, this legislation was billed as part of a “Smart Justice” approach to a continuing problem – non-violent, low-level druggies who face prison time – which no one disputes.  Our prisons in Florida have thousands of these individuals and to the extent that they will all be released, sooner rather than later, and they have a substance abuse problem they do in fact need treatment.  Since he was first elected, Governor Scott has supported Smart Justice’s goals and has in fact recommended reform in his budgets.

Second, a very small group of us almost five years ago initiated Smart Justice as a cost saving measure when Florida TaxWatch discovered that then-Governor Charlie Crist wanted to build 19 new prisons.  It didn’t make sense to build more prisons when so many prisoners were recidivating because of a lack of services for their substance abuse and mental health problems.  We called not only for a new approach to corrections but also for a commitment to Faith-based prisons.

Consequently, a representative of the Florida Police Benevolent Association (PBA) approached me to say that they would support a smarter approach so long as we pledged to not violate two principles:  do not support changing the 85% time that all felons must serve and do not support any early release of prisoners.  I quickly agreed since it was critical for this movement to gain the support of law enforcement.  In addition, to my surprise they indicated that prison guards wanted to work in Faith-based prisons since they were the safest ones.

I’m told that there is a 10,000 inmate waiting list for Faith-based prisons, yet corrections does not seem to be moving very quickly in that direction.  Whether that is accurate or not, if we have prisoners who want Faith-based services, we should do everything possible to accommodate them if it can be accomplished through volunteers or if the cost is justifiable.  Allison DeFoor who was with me at the beginning of Smart Justice has been a tireless advocate for Faith-based counseling and has been volunteering for years, along with many others, down at the Wakulla Correctional Institution.  There is no additional cost for him to provide counseling to prisoners.

In the Governor’s veto letter he writes that he is opposed to felons being diverted to counseling and then not having to serve the minimum 85% of their sentence.  Coincidentally, that is exactly the same concern that law enforcement has and HB 177, despite its very good intentions, violates one of the two premises that Smart Justice was founded on.  This doesn’t mean that the Governor has given up or no longer supports Smart Justice.  What it does mean is that this Governor – and law enforcement – is not going to support legislation that allows criminals to evade serving 85% of their prison time by simply receiving behavioral healthcare services and not having to do the time.

That is fine and dandy because we can rewrite this bill next session and we can satisfy the legitimate concerns of law-abiding citizens that all criminals will be punished.  And we can do so in a fashion that will give them a chance to receive the help that they need while rightfully paying their debt to society.  Instead of criticizing the Governor we should be thanking him for charting a path that we Smart Justice advocates can clearly see, if only we will open our eyes and appreciate his concerns.

Barney Bishop III, former head of Associated Industries of Florida, is the founder of Barney Bishop Consulting. You can contact him at barney@barneybishop.com

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