TALLAHASSEE — Ron Gavin had a promising career as an Air Force pilot destroyed by drugs and alcohol. He once beat his mother and stole her car to feed his habit.
"I couldn't function anymore," said Gavin, 48, of St. Petersburg.
While serving a seven-year sentence in state prison, he was sent to Reality House, a taxpayer-funded treatment center in Daytona Beach, where he got off drugs, renewed his religious faith and rediscovered his self-esteem.
Now Gavin has a stable job at a seafood company, is engaged and is proudly telling his life story in the hope he can inspire others.
"It's refreshing to stand behind a podium and not be sentenced," Gavin said as he testified before the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, whose members shook his hand afterward and wanted to be photographed with him.
One of every 10 inmates in the Florida prison system is behind bars for using drugs, and only a fraction get help for their addiction. The rest languish, get out, reoffend to support their drug habit and are locked up again. Legislators are now focusing directly on this cycle of drug-related despair in the hope of reducing the recidivism rate and lowering the cost of running the prison system.
In recent years, Florida's spending on substance-abuse programs has dwindled, even as the inmate population has remained fairly constant and the "pill mill" epidemic of prescription drug abuse has swollen.
"In the last few years, we've gone backward," said Lori Brown, president of Bridges of America, an Orlando-based treatment program that has partnered with the prison system for decades.
The emerging debate in the state Capitol echoes a growing national conservative movement known as Right on Crime, which calls for a re-examination of laws that lock up nonviolent offenders, wasting lives and costing billions in the process. The movement's latest supporter is former Gov. Jeb Bush.
"This is a community safety issue," Brown said. "We're releasing guys with 50 bucks and a bus ticket and telling them 'Good luck,' and we don't understand why they're committing new crimes and re-entering the system."
There are about 100,000 inmates in Florida prisons, and people who run treatment programs say about half of them have abuse problems related to their imprisonment.
Last year, the prison system says, 6,120 inmates received drug or alcohol abuse treatment. Next year, the agency projects to treat 7,324.
The agency will ask the Legislature for an additional $850,000 to maintain current services.
"We're barely funded, but we're there," Brown said.
On the day Gavin testified, Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, a member of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, said the Legislature is partly to blame for taking away the ability of judges to use discretion to punish offenders on a case-by-case basis.
"They don't have that discretion anymore, and oftentimes we find ourselves with a bunch of people incarcerated that we might not want there," Bennett said.
The drive to help inmates deal with abuse problems, or to lock up fewer drug offenders, can be treacherous political terrain, especially in 2012 as lawmakers prepare to run for re-election in redesigned districts with unfamiliar constituents.
Politicians often fear being labeled "soft on crime" by opponents, who seek to play on the public's fears with brochures showing menacing thugs walking out of prison.
"It's not soft on crime, it's hard on the budget," Bennett said.
Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, the panel's chairman, chimed in: "I don't want it to be perceived that we are, because we're not soft on crime." He added: "Ultimately, we cannot pay the price we're having to pay right now."
In the late '90s, when violent crime in Florida was higher than it is now, lawmakers passed several tough-on-crime laws, including one requiring inmates to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences. Now, the high cost of those policies is coming into sharper focus.
Gov. Rick Scott says he's "willing to look at" expansion of treatment programs in prisons, but he stopped short of embracing the concept.
In the past, he has cited his own brother's problems with dependency.
"I've had substance abuse problems in my family," Scott said. "I'd want to have programs that work, and try things and measure them. I believe in looking at some of these things, especially with the amount of people that we have in prison."
Advocates for expanded treatment programs say inmates who receive care are much less likely to commit new crimes. They cite as proof of their effectiveness people such as Gavin who, ironically, didn't want to go to a treatment center.
"I remember crying on the bus all the way there," Gavin told senators. "After two weeks of being there, I decided to change my life."
Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.