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Lawmakers push to end prison sentences for nonviolent offenders

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – On the eve of Florida’s annual legislative session, a decades-old tough-on-crime policy is raising concerns about cost and fairness.

A new coalition that launched Monday features liberal and conservative groups, and business leaders and lawyers. The coalition's goal is to keep people out of prison while keeping us safe.

Florida’s prison population hovers around 100,000, costing taxpayers $2.3 billion each year. But now, legislation to end prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders has been given unanimous approval from the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.

“It's more expensive to incarcerate someone than to give them treatment," Sen. Darryl Rouson said. "So when someone is arrested for minor drug possession -- not sales, not trafficking, not intent to deliver, but possession, addicts -- it makes sense to give them treatment.”

There are 118 minimum mandatory laws on the books, but many experts believe they have outlived their usefulness.

“Somebody who had a number of prescription pills, maybe even for their own use, could ultimately be serving a 10- or 15-year sentence,” said Natalie Kato, with Campaign for Criminal Justice Reform.

Sal Nuzzo works at the conservative James Madison Institute.

"If something is in statute that is not serving its intended purposes, in either protecting the public or diverting tax dollars, we should be looking at reforming that,” he said.

Put another way: Just because we’re mad at you, we don’t need to lock you up and thrown away the key.

“Bad folks need to be put away, and some bad folks need to be put away for a long time," Rouson said. "But in other instances, we need to be smart about the administration of justice."

The legislation is a small step, reducing the need for a thousand prison beds at a savings projected to be at least $130 million over the course of five years.

 

While prison costs are expected to go down, the staff analysis for the bill suggests costs for the Office of Offender Rehabilitation could go up by as much as $50,000 a year to handle an increased caseload.