Tallahassee, FL -- May 23, 2012 --
Florida now has the nation's third-largest prison system...With more than 100,000 inmates.
That's roughly double the size it was 25 years ago, before tough-on-crime lawmakers passed a mandate that prisoners serve at least 85 percent of their sentence.
Now, legislators are re-thinking that mandate, but they're having a tough time overcoming opposition from Governor Scott.
For the Governor, it's a matter of principle. In his mind, convicted criminals owe a debt to society, and the only way to make it up is by doing all of their time. But, lawmakers complain... The Governor is missing the point.
For thousands of Floridians, a life of drug abuse... has turned in to a life behind bars. Here in florida, convicts have to serve 85 percent of their sentence. Lawmakers like Democratic Representative Alan Williams are intent on changing that.
Williams said, "Florida has to be a state that shows compassion, especially for those individuals who have not committed a crime against another individual - they just have an issue, especially in a lot of cases dealing with drugs, that we have to try and figure out, 'how can we rehabilitate them?"
Governor Scott's already vetoed a 2012 bill that would've allowed for early release. Non-violent drug offenders who've served at least half their sentence could have been transferred to a drug treatment program.
Scott is concerned letting convicts out early might hurt public safety.
And critics point out...The program he killed could only have handled around 300 inmates.
Frank Messersmith of the Florida Sheriff's Association says, "You're not focusing enough on doing the things to stop the recidivism based on drug abuse. You need to create the programs. If only 20 percent of all the prisoners that are eligible can find this treatment, it does no good to have the program."
Early release advocates aren't giving up. They plan to be back with a new bill in 2013, along with a new focus on winning over Governor Scott.
Right now, Florida taxpayers spend well over two billion dollars a year on the prison system. The bill's backers say letting non-violent offenders out early could shave hundreds of millions off that price tag, depending how broad the effort is.
The early released bill passed the state senate unanimously. Just four members of the Republican-controlled state house voted 'no'.