Conservative luminary Grover Norquist was in Tallahassee last week, promoting an approach to criminal justice that favors helping former offenders return to society and saving money on prisons. Some modest efforts along those lines are now advancing in the Florida Senate.

The shift comes with political risks for Republicans, who, by favoring programs like drug treatment and work-release over lengthy prison sentences, can expose themselves to accusations that they’re soft on crime.

For that reason, Norquist, who has championed causes from flattening federal income taxes to replacing Alexander Hamilton with Ronald Reagan on the $10 bill, said it’s important for the “right on crime” (as opposed to “tough on crime”) movement to enlist credible conservatives — as well as prosecutors and police — to support its cause.

Florida has the advantage of following Texas, where Gov. Rick Perry — perhaps Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s most oft-cited rival — has overseen falling prison populations by increasing education programs for inmates and other efforts to ensure that prisoners don’t return to lives of crime after they complete their sentences.

To that end, the Florida Senate’s criminal justice panel passed several modest measures on Monday. One, backed by Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, would increase programs that allow less-threatening inmates nearing the ends of their sentences to work in the community under the supervision of the Department of Corrections. Dockery said the programs would increase their chances of landing a job and finding a place to live after they complete their sentecnes.

Another measure, by Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, would promote increased addiction treatment for drug offenders and ease mandatory sentences for people caught possessing drugs in amounts that sometimes qualify them for trafficking charges.

“Many of these people are drug addicts, not drug traffickers,” she said.

Don Eslinger of the Florida Sheriff’s association spoke against Bogdanoff’s measure, noting that earlier in the day he had joined Scott for a press conference announcing a new “strike force” to crack down on pill mills.

“It is not the time to diminish the consequences for drug trafficking. It is not the time to weaken our laws,” he said.

The panel approved the measure unanimously after chairman Greg Evers, R-Crestview, said some prosecutors supported the changes.

Bogdanoff said increasing drug treatment programs would help lower demand for drugs. Changes to the bill also strengthened the sentencing requirements for offenders with prior felony convictions or histories of violence.

The two measures are expected to yield a combined savings in the tens of millions of dollars, which may pale in the face of  a budget gap of nearly $4 billion, or the massive prison privatization effort just proposed in the Senate. But they are a starting point for changes that Norquist argued will be most effective if they come from conservatives.

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