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Rick Scott's veto of prison bill misses point

It took six long years for Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff to pass a law intended to help a few people deal with their drug addiction in state prison.

It took Gov. Rick Scott only a few seconds to wipe it out.

Scott last Friday vetoed a carefully crafted bill that had the support of almost every conservative Republican in the state Legislature.

In an election year, state lawmakers are especially leery of voting for anything that an opponent could distort into a "soft on crime" attack.

This bill didn't do that. It passed the Senate, 40-0, and the House, 112-4, and had the backing of business groups, too.

"I'm phenomenally disappointed," said Bogdanoff, a Fort Lauderdale Republican who could not convince Scott that the modest reform in the bill would save taxpayers' money by reducing the chance that inmates would re-offend by getting them the help they need.

"He said it was a 'public safety' issue. No, it's not," she said. "These are nonviolent drug offenders."

Political leaders have to get past what she called the "garbage" of mindless "tough on crime" talk, Bogdanoff said.

She said Florida cells are full of people whose only crime is an addiction to drugs, and if they don't get help, they'll soon be back on the streets, committing new crimes to support the habit that flourished in prison.

But that's not how Scott saw it.

"Justice to victims of crime is not served when a criminal is permitted to be released early from a sentence imposed by the courts," Scott wrote in his veto message. "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."

Florida remains shackled by the 85 percent rule, enacted in the 1990s during a crime wave fueled by the crack cocaine epidemic.

Across the country, more and more conservatives have become convinced that such laws are too expensive and that inmates need help, not strictly punishment.

The vetoed bill (HB 177) would have permitted a small group of drug-addicted inmates to move from prison to intensive treatment programs after serving half their time. They'd still be in custody, but not behind bars.

The prison system said a total of 337 inmates could have participated in the first year, out of more than 100,000 statewide. Only nonviolent offenders would have been eligible after a full assessment and after being enrolled in adult education courses.

The prison system would have chosen inmates based on their good behavior, the severity of their addictions and the likelihood that rehabilitation would save taxpayer dollars, a House analysis said.

In other words, the bill, properly implemented, could have reduced the cost of government, the very thing that Scott talks about so much.

The House sponsor of the bill was Rep. Ari Porth of Coral Springs, a Democrat who also was disappointed by Scott's veto.

"This was a very small step toward prison reform," Porth said. "This was a real chance to have a positive impact on the lives of people."

The term-limited Porth is not going back to Tallahassee, but Bogdanoff probably will be back next session.

"We'll try again," she said.

Rick Scott's veto of prison bill misses point 04/09/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 10, 2012 11:15am]
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