TALLAHASSEE - Though he has admitted to smoking marijuana, Gov. Charlie Crist said he still favors Florida's tough drug laws and doesn't support legislative plans to review whether to lessen penalties for some crimes such as non-violent drug possession.
The state's prison population is expected to swell at year's end to a record 100,000, about 20 percent of whom are non-violent drug offenders convicted of crimes such as trafficking and simple possession.
And some legislators have wondered aloud and in private how the state can afford to pay for it now that Florida's economy is sagging and crime is rising It costs more than $19,000 a year to lock up an inmate, not counting the millions it will cost to build two prisons per year through 2013 to keep up with prison-population growth.
While no legislator has filed a bill to decriminalize drug laws outright, the Senate and House are considering measures that allow some inmates early and supervised work release, that establish a commission to review mandatory-minimum prison sentences -- a legacy of the drug war -- and that lessen penalties for driving with a suspended license.
But Crist said he wants to keep the laws the way they are. ''It's important to make sure that we do what the first order of business is, and that is to ensure domestic tranquility -- make sure that our people are safe -- and that means locking up bad people,'' he said.
What about nonviolent drug offenders?
''I feel that our laws are good in Florida. They were thoughtfully put in place. And I know there is a budget crunch. But I don't want to sacrifice public safety,'' Crist said.
Plantation Democratic Rep. Perry Thurston said the Legislature is not yet ready for decriminalization, but he noted his Republican colleagues are slowly starting to realize that too many people are being locked away and they're changing their minds about being tough on certain crimes.
Tampa Sen. Victor Crist -- a Republican who's not related to the governor and chairs the senate's criminal-justice appropriations committee -- said locking up drug users costs society and the state too much money, and it doesn't work.
''That's the old way; throw a drug addict in jail. But now we know treatment works, it's better and it's cheaper,'' Sen. Crist said. "If you're a violent criminal, you belong in a cell. If you're a drug addict, you belong in a rehab program.''
He said the Legislature is studying who's in prison and why -- something which can take time because prison records don't reflect the type of drug or specifics of a crime for which someone is convicted.
Asked if marijuana-possession should be decriminalized, Sen. Crist said: "The man or woman abusing drugs need to be in a program to overcome their addiction. And the time has come to look at the prison system and make sure this is appropriate.''
While the state senator said he hasn't used illegal drugs, the governor acknowledged he had. Asked if he ever used marijuana, Crist said "Yeah.''
''I've said many times, people make mistakes. And what I support about the law is the deterrent effect,'' he said. "Having said that, I'm also recommending about $28 million for substance-abuse [treatment], to help people who might have an addiction or problem with a substance. I think that's important to do as well. I think we have to have balance.''
Gov. Crist said he only used marijuana recreationally when he was younger and long before public life and that he never used cocaine. Did he inhale? ''I did,'' he said.
Source: Miami Herald
Copyright: 2008, Miami Herald
Contact: MARC CAPUTO, mcaputo@MiamiHerald.com
Website: Crist wants to maintain drug penalties - 03/15/2008 - MiamiHerald.com