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Senate panel aids prison drug offenders

A Senate committee passed a bill Thursday that, for the first time in decades, would ease the 85-percent sentencing requirement for a very small group of state prison inmates. The Senate Criminal Justice Committee voted 4-0 for a bill by Republican Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff of Fort Lauderdale to require the prison system to divert certain inmates serving time for drug offenses into treatment programs after they serve half their sentences.

"We have to recognize that these people are sick," Bogdanoff testified. "Nobody's letting violent criminals out of jail and that's not the goal here." 

A Senate staff report noted that "the bill will likely result in cost savings to the state" and that 276 inmates would be eligible in the first year (out of more than 50,000 drug offenders in state prisons). Before leaving prison and entering a drug treatment program, the inmate would have to appear before a judge, who would have the discretion to admit or refuse the inmate's enrollment.   

Bogdanoff accepted amendments to her bill (SB 448) that eliminated opposition from sheriffs and police chiefs. The amended bill would bar any habitual offenders or sex offenders from eligibility for the re-entry program, and requires the Department of Corrections to consider the inmate's criminal history. Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, a panel member and ex-sheriff, said he would have opposed the bill without that provision. Others voting yes were Sens. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla; Greg Evers, R-Baker, the chairman; and Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale.

Thursday's vote was a tribute to the tenacity of Bogdanoff, who has pushed the measure for several years. "You have to kind of be patient in this business," she told reporters after the vote.    

-- Steve Bousquet