Column: Rehabilitate felons like me or pay the price later

Published May 15 2018
Updated May 16 2018

I am your neighbor. I’ve also been convicted of five felonies and was previously designated a career criminal. I have served more than 25 years in prison. Whether people like me are good or bad neighbors when we leave prison depends largely on whether we have access to rehabilitation programs during our incarceration.

I, for one, benefited from the programs offered by the Florida Department of Corrections. I am deeply grateful for the people who run these programs and helped me make the changes necessary to live a full, productive life outside prison walls. If we take away programs that give people like me the tools we need to succeed, not everyone will have the chance I did.

I am deeply concerned that the Florida Department of Corrections has decided to cut rehabilitation programs to make up for its budget shortfall. Substance-abuse treatment, community-based re-entry programs and mental health services are critical to helping incarcerated people successfully transition from prison home to our communities.

Substance abuse was not the cause of my criminal conduct, but it set the stage for a life that was susceptible to crime and helped to facilitate my criminal behavior. I was not arrested each time I got drunk, but I was drunk each time I was arrested.

I started getting in trouble in my teens as my abuse of alcohol and drugs began. This addictive behavior escalated during my enlistment in the Air Force and eventually led me to prison at the age of 22. I served 4˝ years without addressing my substance-abuse issue. Prison was hard and violent, and I came out with an attitude of anger and resentment and a firm resolution to never, ever go back to prison.

Despite being "scared straight," I continued to drink and use drugs. That was until Aug. 27, 1991, when I came out of an alcohol-induced blackout in a jail cell and had to ask the jailer why I was there — what had I done this time? Burglary of a conveyance with assault earned me a 35-year career-criminal prison sentence.

Fortunately for me, the Florida Department of Corrections offered substance-abuse treatment. I volunteered for and completed several substance-abuse programs during my final prison stint. I changed. If I had not changed, I would not have earned my release and I might have died in prison.

Today I am a loving husband, successful business owner and a good neighbor. I am rehabilitated and mentor others in a long-term recovery lifestyle.

These programs work. I am where I am today because of them. People like me need these programs so we can go home, find jobs, provide stability for our families and become good neighbors. People like you need these programs, too, because people like me are your neighbors.

Cutting programs that are proven to reduce recidivism and lower long-term costs to the state is not the way to pay for our expensive prison system. Taking away resources that help prepare people for productive and healthy lives outside of prison is counter-productive.

It is time for our state officials to step up and start fixing our bloated, costly, and ineffective criminal justice system. Lawmakers must adopt smart policies that will reduce our prison population, save our tax dollars and keep us safer, and that includes funding rehabilitation programs.

I recently read that about 33,000 people are released from prison each year. Some of these people will certainly become our neighbors. This is not somebody else’s problem. It is all of ours.

We as a society are going to pay. The questions we must confront are how, and how much, do we want to pay? We can pay a smaller amount to rehabilitate people like me or pay much more to re-incarcerate people if they are released without rehabilitation.

Ron Baker is president and CEO of Prisoner Connections LLC, which works with attorneys in post-conviction and appellate litigation to serve Florida prisoners’ legal needs and to protect their constitutional rights.. He lives in Riverview.