Sunday, April 22, 2018
Politics

Bousquet column: Gov. Rick Scott's safety tour plays it safe

Another week, another campaign tour for Gov. Rick Scott.

He began a statewide swing Monday all about public safety. His "Let's Keep Florida Safe" tour went to Tampa and Hialeah to tout a steady drop in the crime rate and his opposition to any changes to a 1995 state law that requires inmates to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences.

The Senate sponsor of that law? Charlie Crist, back when he was "Chain Gang Charlie." Crime was a huge issue because of crack cocaine and killings of foreign visitors that threatened Florida's tourist-friendly image.

But as crime abated, the 85 percent law has relegated nonviolent offenders to lives of despair behind bars. That's why more Republicans say it's time to give judges broader discretion in sentencing.

By defending the 85 percent law, Scott is playing it safe as an endangered incumbent should, and positioning himself against Crist, his likely Democratic opponent in November.

As Scott's safety tour began, sheriffs, including Pinellas' Bob Gualtieri, praised his record and the Florida Police Chiefs Association endorsed his re-election bid.

But Scott's safety blitz invites scrutiny of his record.

After all, here's a guy who as a novice candidate in 2010 suggested cutting the prisons' budget by $1 billion, or nearly half, which could have shuttered dozens of prisons. It didn't happen, and the system is still coping with a chronic budget deficit.

Two years ago, Scott vetoed a bill that would have been a small step to retooling the 85 percent law, providing more treatment for a select group of nonviolent drug users in the late stages of their sentences. With overwhelming bipartisan support, it had passed the Senate 40-0 and House 112-4.

Another idea pushed by some Republicans for the past decade would require that all 12 jurors in murder cases agree that a killer deserves a death sentence in making that recommendation to a judge.

Florida is the only state where a jury can recommend death by a bare 7-5 majority, but a bill to require a unanimous vote, filed again this spring by Sen. Thad Altman, R-Melbourne, didn't get a hearing after a key Scott adviser lobbied against it.

Scott's general counsel, Pete Antonacci, had warned key lawmakers that any change in law would "clog the courts with more and needless capital litigation," and he argued that inmates' rights are protected by the Florida Supreme Court's "proportionality" reviews of death cases to ensure that a penalty is proportional to other cases.

Since Scott became governor, 17 inmates have been executed, and the 18th is set for Thursday.

Scott's big problem when it comes to public safety is that front-line correctional officers and law enforcement won't forget his decision to divert 3 percent of their pay to offset state contributions to their pension plans.

Rank-and-file workers have had one across-the-board raise in seven years. In a year when Scott wanted $500 million for tax cuts, the only across-the-board pay raise for public safety was 5 percent for FHP troopers.

State workers in out-of-the-way places like Blountstown, Cross City and Starke would love to talk to Scott about safety. But they're not likely to get the chance.

Contact Steve Bousquet at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet.

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