Nothing could make less sense than Gov. Rick Scott's pretext for vetoing the bill designed to ease a few nonviolent offenders out of prison. It doesn't sound as if he even read it.
"Justice to victims of crime is not served when a criminal is permitted to be released early from a sentence imposed by the courts," the governor said.
The bill was meant for inmates who owe their imprisonment to drugs. The "victims" in such cases are almost always the users themselves.
They're victimized again by laws that cage them with violent criminals and require them all to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences.
The "re-entry" reform Scott vetoed would be open only to those having completed at least half their sentences and needing substance abuse treatment. They would spend at least six months in the treatment program and could be set free only with the approval of the sentencing judge.
Eligibility would be limited to third-degree felons--automatically excluding serious traffickers--who never had been convicted of murder, sexual battery, pornography, home invasion robbery, use of firearms in a crime, child abuse and other serious felonies.
According to the Department of Corrections, merely 337 inmates would have been eligible this year. That's barely a third of one percent of the 100,772 people Florida was warehousing as of March 30.
The average Florida drug sentence is 3.2 years. So the average inmate could shave at most only a year off his or her sentence by successfully completing the program.
Yet the governor trashed even this modest reform as an "unwarranted exception" to the 85 percent law, which he credits in part for the lowest crime rates in 40 years. However, that begs three questions: One, what other factors, such as improved policing, contribute to the lower rates? Two, does it make moral or practical sense to apply the same harsh standards to nonviolent first offenders as to brutal career criminals? Three, isn't it time someone thought about how the taxpayers are victimized by all this?
More than a few legislators must have been thinking along those rational lines, for the bill passed by emphatic bipartisan margins more commonly associated with the Mother's Day resolution than with crime or punishment in Florida: 40-0 in the Senate and 112-4 in the House. That was more than enough to insulate everyone involved from any "soft on crime" campaign attack. Scott hardly could have feared being the target of one. It is intriguing to wonder whether he might have liked the bill had it called for privatizing the substance abuse program. The private prison companies to whom he wanted to turn over almost every prison south of Tampa Bay are in the rehab business, too.
Scott's phobia against any relaxation of Florida's harsh sentencing regime brings to mind the astonishing fact that the United States imprisons far more people than any other nation. In 2007, according to United Nations statistics, 738 of every 100,000 Americans were behind bars. (The rate was 731 in 2010) Russia was second with 611, Cuba fifth at 487. Every nation in Western Europe was below 200 yet crime is not rampant there.
"Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today," wrote Adam Gopnik in the June 30 New Yorker. He noted that more than six million Americans are behind bars or under supervision--more than ever languished in Stalin's Gulag. The harsh drug laws--the strategy of a "war" that has failed colossally--account for much of that.
Many people now question the wisdom, the justice, and the financial burden of being a prison nation. In California, a coalition representing law enforcement, civil rights organizations and taxpayers claims enough signatures for an initiative to relax California's notorious "three strikes" law, under which even nonviolent offenders are serving life terms.
"Dangerous recidivist criminals will remain behind bars for life, and our overflowing prisons will not be clogged with inmates who pose no risk to public safety," said Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley, who backs the initiative.
Other supporters include Grover Norquist, the arch-enemy of all taxes. If he can see the logic in prison reform, why can't Rick Scott?
Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the newspaper formerly known as the St. Petersburg Times.
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