TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - A group with strong business ties urged Florida lawmakers to divert nonviolent felons into privately operated prisons for substance abuse and mental health treatment to cut costs and help prevent them from returning to crime when they are released.
The proposal by the Florida Smart Justice Alliance drew opposition from public employee unions representing guards and other prison workers. They questioned the safety of private prisons as well as cost savings claimed by the alliance.
Smart Justice president and CEO Barney Bishop told the Senate Criminal Justice Committee that Florida releases about 33,000 inmates each year but only 25 percent get substance abuse or mental health assistance, and a third return to prison within three years.
"We're allowing the creation of new victims of crime," Bishop said.
"These individuals ... are simply going through the proverbial revolving door back to prison and costing us taxpayers more money," he said. "We give them $50 and a bus ticket and expect them to overcome the addiction and become productive, law-abiding citizens."
The group is proposing that three new prisons be turned over to private operators and used to provide treatment to inmates. The prisons are sitting empty because Florida's crime rate has been falling in recent years. Once inmates complete treatment, they would be sent to work release centers to ensure they'll have jobs when they get out.
The unused prisons are in Miami-Dade County in South Florida, Baker County in north Florida and Gadsden County in the Panhandle.
The program would be aimed at inmates who used drugs or committed property crimes but exclude those who may have distributed drugs, used weapons or hurt anyone. The group contends private operators could run the program so cheaply that the state would have millions left over that could be used for other things.
"We're not against reform," union lobbyist Ron Silver told the committee. "But we must make public safety a top priority and not allow for risky experiments advocated by parties seeking to benefit from the state's treasury."
The former Democratic senator lobbies for the Teamsters union, which represents prison guards. Silver argued that private prison employees don't have the kind of training required for state prison guards, who are certified by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Doug Martin, a lobbyist for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents other prison workers, said improperly supervised inmates in private work release programs have in the past killed or injured members of the public.
"When people have to be compensated that liability rests with the state," Martin said. "The state is not able to put that liability off to private providers."
Prison privatization has been a contentious issue in Florida. A judge struck down a budget provision that would have privatized about 30 South Florida prison facilities in fiscal year ending last June 30. Another judge approved a plan to privatize prison health care services in South Florida but blocked it elsewhere in the state. The Department of Corrections is appealing the latter ruling.
Committee Chairman Greg Evers, R-Baker, thanked both sides for the discussion but said any action would be up to a separate budget committee that oversees prison spending. Evers said he agreed with the idea of providing rehabilitation but that taxpayers should be compensated for building prisons operated by private companies.
The Legislature last year passed a bill that would have allowed a limited number of nonviolent felons to seek sentence reductions after obtaining substance abuse treatment in prison. It was vetoed by Gov. Rick Scott, who said releasing inmates early would be an injustice to victims.
Bishop said he believed Scott will support the Smart Justice proposal because it would not reduce sentences.
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