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New 'Smart Justice' bill would offer treatment for drug offenders

A new proposal announced Tuesday—dubbed “Smart Justice”—would change the way Florida deals with non-violent drug offenders.

The bill seeks to reduce recidivism by redirecting some non-violent offenders from high-security prison into re-entry and drug treatment programs.

“It’s time that we change the way we’re doing business,” said Sen. Thad Altman, R-Viera, who is co-sponsoring the measure. “We’re in the modern days, the 21st century. But in many ways our criminal justice system is still in the Middle Ages.”

Inmates in the last three years of their sentences would be potentially eligible for the program. New “Correctional Re-entry Treatment Facilities” would be created—and run by private providers—to take in the non-violent offenders.

Rep. Dennis Baxley, an Ocala Republican who chairs the House’s Judiciary Committee, is also sponsoring the measure. He said it would help reduce recidivism in Florida’s prison system.

“The ideas contained in this legislation will make a meaningful difference,” Baxley said in a statement. “Not just in the lives of offenders, but more importantly in the lives of Floridians who might otherwise become their future crime victims.”

According to data provided by the Florida Smart Justice Alliance, there will be an estimated 32,555 admissions into Florida prisons this year, and 14,000 of them will be “reoffenders.” Almost half of all new inmates are locked up for nonviolent offenses, including drug charges.

The bill would take a large chunk of those offenders and divert them into treatment programs or alternative facilities.

The bill also has support from Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, who spoke in favor of the “smart justice” concept during a Tuesday press release.

It’s not clear if Gov. Rick Scott will support the bill. Last year, Scott vetoed a measure dealing with alternative treatment for non-violent offenders, saying it would not be fair to crime victims.

Barney Bishop, president and CEO of the Florida Smart Justice Alliance, said this bill would alleviate the governor’s concern because it does not do anything to shorten sentences for criminals.

Bishop, who said the program may include allowing private companies to make use of empty state prison facilities, is a lobbyist for Bridges of America, a well-established private provider of inmate re-entry programs in Florida.