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Saturday, Jun 23, 2018
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Carlton: Sometimes taxpayers pay for not doing the right thing

I may have cracked the code. Found a way to sell doing the right thing. Discovered a method of persuasion in certain matters of fairness, conscience and the greater good.

Like giving our fellow Americans a second chance.

When morality-based arguments don’t work, here’s what we do: We put a price tag on how much it costs not to do the right thing.

Back in 2011, Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet got rid of the basic fairness policy of restoring voting rights to felons after they had done their time.

Instead, under Scott, people who want to put the past behind them and fully participate in being an American again have to wait at least five years before even applying to get their voting and civil rights restored. They have to appear before the governor and Cabinet to be arbitrarily judged worthy or not.

There’s a backlog. It can take years.

All of which flies in the face of the very American concept we are taught in grade school about doing wrong, taking your punishment and getting a second chance to do better. Here in Florida, paying your debt to society doesn’t mean you get to fully rejoin it.

Voters get the chance to change this in November with Amendment 4, which would automatically restore voting rights to those who finish their sentences, including parole or probation, except to those convicted of murder or rape.

So this is interesting: A research report about what would happen if that constitutional amendment passes says that under the current policy, our state lost an estimated $385 million a year in economic impact, spent millions on prison and court costs, had thousands more offenders return to prison and lost out on creating thousands of new jobs. (You can check it out at weg.com.)

So if arguments about remnants of a shameful Jim Crow past, about naked political manipulation or just basic fairness aren’t enough, maybe those big numbers will give voters something to ruminate on.

This price-tag persuasion — this bolstering of the bottom line — might work elsewhere, too.

Take the stubbornly entrenched population of homeless people in our midst. And the equally stubbornly entrenched population of citizens against spending taxpayer money on them.

Except, um, we already do. And it turns out we could be getting a way better deal.

Proponents of a "housing-first" philosophy for the homeless — getting someone a place to live, then providing treatment, job skills and other services — cite how much cheaper this is than repeated arrests, incarcerations, court hearings and emergency room visits. A single day spent in county jail costs you $125. And the public cost of one chronically homeless person on the streets is estimated to start at $30,000 a year.

Okay, one more: Hard-liners balk at the idea of giving civil citations to juveniles accused of minor crimes like petty theft or having a small amount of marijuana instead of going the traditional arrest-and-prosecution route. Mollycoddling!

The price tag: It costs approximately $5,000 to prosecute versus $500 to put a kid in a civil citation program that can include community service, restitution, classes or treatment for substance abuse.

If doing the right thing isn’t enough to convince us, maybe doing the cheaper one will.

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