In a move that has ignited a firestorm of criticism, on April 7, 2012, Governor Rick Scott effectively overruled the wishes of the Florida Legislature by vetoing a widely-popular prison reform bill, H.B. 177, that would have created a reentry program for non-violent drug addicts. Under the bill, after serving one-half of their court-imposed sentence, non-violent felony offenders identified as needing substance-abuse treatment could have sought approval from the sentencing court to leave prison on supervision in order to then participate in intensive drug treatment, and either educational classes or vocational training, all of which has been consistently verified as leading to reduce recidivism rates. Significantly, by releasing the prisoners to participate in the program and by reducing recidivism, the program had the potential of saving taxpayers approximately 20,000 a year per inmate – the current average cost to house and care for a prisoner in the Florida DOC.
Lawmakers from both parties overwhelmingly approved of the proposal: it passed in the Senate unanimously and by a 112-4 vote in the House, the bill’s legislative support left Governor Scott unswayed. In striking the bill with a mere stroke of his veto pen, Scott killed any hope that state leaders were beginning to implement criminal justice policy reforms that could have helped rein in the ever-rising cost of operating the nation’s third-largest prison system. Last fiscal year, it cost Florida taxpayers around $2.3 billion to operate its prisons.
In vetoing the bill, Scott appears to be following the age-old “get tough on crime” approach to crime and punishment. Yet is is precisely that specific mentally that resulted in the dramatic increase to the prisoner population over the last two decades. In his accompanying “veto statement,” Governor Scott gave an explanation for exercising his veto power, ostensibly arguing that his decision is based based on protecting the public:
“Justice to victims of crime is not served when a criminal is permitted to be released early from a sentence imposed by the courts…This bill would permit criminals to be released after serving 50 percent of their sentences, thus creating an unwarranted exception to the rule that inmates serve 85 percent of their imposed sentences.”
According to a Miami Herald article, the Bill’s sponsor, Senator Ellyn Bogdanoff, reacted to Scott’s veto by stating, “I’m phenomenally disappointed.” Obviously, Bogdanoff – a Fort Lauderdale Republican, could not convince Scott that the modest reform in the bill would save taxpayers’ money by reducing the chance that inmates would re-offend by getting them the help they need. “He said it was a ‘public safety’ issue. No it’s not,” she said. “These are non-violent drug offenders.” We join others in pointing out that Scott’s statement about insuring that crime victims get the justice they deserve is entirely misplaced, as drug possession or even sales offenses are truly victimless crimes, unless of course, you consider the addicts themselves as the true victims of such crimes. In other words, “What victims – these are victimless crimes.”
Bogdanoff’s proposal was truly a step in the right direction, providing sorely needed treatment and remedial educational opportunities to offenders identified by the DOC as worthy of that opportunity, in an all-out effort to help them get off what some refer to asl ” the inmate merry-go-round.” According to the Miami Herald article:
The vetoed bill (HB 177) would have permitted a small group of drug-addicted inmates to move from prison to intensive treatment programs after serving half their time. They’d still be in custody, but not behind bars.
The prison system said a total of 337 inmates could have participated in the first year, out of more than 100,000 statewide. Only non-violent offenders would have been eligible after a full assessment and after being enrolled in adult education courses.
The prison system would have chosen inmates based on their good behavior, the severity of their addictions and the likelihood that rehabilitation would save taxpayer dollars, a House analysis said.
Sadly, as Tampa Bay Times/Herald Columnist Steve Bousquet wrote, Scott’s veto missed the point:
In other words, the bill, properly implemented, could have reduced the cost of government, the very thing that Scott talks about so much.
According to an article appearing in the Tampa Bay Times, “Florida lawmakers in both parties are reacting with disappointment at Gov. Rick Scott’s veto of [the] prison inmate re-entry bill.” Yet the most-appropriate statement which is critical of Scott’s veto appeared in an editorial in today’s Sun-Sentinel:
Gov. Scott had the chance to put the state on the road to innovative reform. Instead, he left Florida taxpayers locked in the costly expense of the status quo.
Leaving the correctional system to continue operating at the status quo keeps Florida at the back of the pack, as a host of other states are moving forward with Godspeed to implement innovative criminal justice reforms addressing exploding prisoners populations, soaring prison construction and/or operational expenses, and unacceptable recidivism rates. To be sure, many now question whether Scott’s previous statements supporting prison reform and downsizing government represent his real philosophy after all.
It is worth noting that although lawmakers have not as of yet publicly mentioned it, Florida law allows them to overrule Scott’s veto. The Florida Constitution provides that if both houses of the Legislature vote by a two-thirds majority to re-enact a vetoed bill, such a vote overrides the veto and the bill will become law when the legislative session adjourns. Whether lawmakers will consider that option remains to be seen.
FloridaPrisoner.com asks that you join in applauding the tireless efforts of Senator Bogdanoff, who has worked closely with the Florida staff of Families Against Minimum Mandatories (FAMM) over the past two years in drafting legislation attempting to introduce reforms to Florida’s criminal justice system. If called upon, we will support their efforts in any way we can.