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  1. Florida Politics

Steve Bousquet: Florida's prisoners get little help once released

Published Jun. 24, 2013

Every single day all over Florida, the heavy steel doors of a prison swing open and an inmate walks free after completing a sentence.

As many as 100 are set free each day. They swear they will never be back, but many do return.

Part of the problem is that Florida does almost nothing to help ex-offenders re-enter the real world.

So, many of them get trapped in a desperate spiral that leads to more crime and more prison time — at a huge cost to taxpayers.

The revolving door of recidivism trumps re-entry.

An ex-offender gets $50, a change of clothes and a one-way bus fare back to the place where he was sentenced, and many lack the one item that's indispensable in the real world: a photo ID.

Without an ID, it's impossible to apply for a job or even to put that $50 in the bank.

In the spring legislative session, some lawmakers wanted to require the state to track down inmates' birth certificates so they can get IDs. It's an enormous task because nearly half of our inmates are from other states.

"It's a huge problem for us," Corrections Secretary Mike Crews says.

The bill (HB 7121) passed the House but died in the Senate, as the subject of inmate re-entry got swept up in a broader debate over how to expand programs to help some inmates prepare for life on the outside. (A similar bill passed last year, and Gov. Rick Scott vetoed it.)

Advocates calling themselves the Smart Justice Alliance proposed that certain nonviolent offenders in the last three years of their terms — many of them drug abusers — get treatment and skills to make them more productive citizens, to reduce recidivism and its costs.

The alliance says it is not seeking more lenient sentencing laws, just smarter strategies.

The leader of the alliance is lobbyist Barney Bishop, whose clients include Bridges of America, a firm that operates inmate re-entry programs. Bishop was up front about that, but it rankled the chairman of the House Criminal Justice Committee, Rep. Matt Gaetz of Fort Walton Beach.

"Smart justice?" Gaetz said. "It's just a group of vendors in $3,000 suits, wondering how to make money by getting people out of jail and into their programs. … I'm not in any hurry to speed up people getting out of jail."

Gaetz, the son of Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, notes that violent crime has been trending downward in Florida for decades, and it's because Florida sentencing laws are working.

The "smart justice" idea is getting traction in Texas, Georgia and elsewhere, but not here, even though a major proponent is Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, who's among the Legislature's most conservative members.

Baxley said he'll try again next year to help ex-inmates get state IDs. He calls it a small thing that could make a big difference in a lot of lives.

Next year is an election year, when no lawmaker wants to be accused of being "soft on crime," but Baxley will keep trying.

"Any time you want transformative change, it's going to be difficult," Baxley said. "It's the Department of Corrections, not the 'Department of Incarceration.' We've got to do more than just incarcerate people."

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263.

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