So much for bold criminal justice reforms – modest changes to Florida’s hard line laws pass Legislature

By: - May 3, 2019 2:48 pm

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A measure that aims to make modest changes to some of Florida’s hard line criminal justice policies passed the Legislature Friday, and is now on its way to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk.

Lawmakers removed some of the bolder ideas proposed earlier this spring.

The measure DeSantis will sign or veto raises the threshold for charging someone with felony theft from the current $300 to $750 – the aim is to avoid giving people who are convicted of petty theft a felony record.

It makes it easier for someone with a criminal record to get a professional license through the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation, and eases some penalties for violating probation by providing, among other things, alternatives to returning an offender to prison who meets certain criteria.

The original legislation – first proposed by St. Petersburg Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes –  was much more impactful. Brandes said he’ll try again.

“I hope that over the next few years we will cast a bold vision of what criminal justice should look like in this state,” he said.

Under one key reform Brandes unsuccessfully fought for, non-violent offenders who have good behavior in jail could have had their sentences cut from the current maximum of 85 percent of time served down to 65 percent. The Florida Prosecutors Attorneys Association of Florida, the Florida Police Chiefs and the Florida Sheriffs Associations all opposed the change in so-called “gain time.” Brandes and others cited a state economic report that found reducing sentences for non-violent offenders who didn’t misbehave  in prison could save the state Department of Corrections $860 million over five years. In the end, lawmakers punted to ordering a study about gain time and reviving a parole system in Florida.

Another key reform that lawmakers removed would have allowed judges to depart from punitive “mandatory minimum” sentences in drug trafficking – a way for the court to consider specific circumstances in each case.

Also removed: a proposal to require a “racial impact statement” for all criminal-justice related bills in the Legislature to make sure laws are being applied fairly; another plan to let prosecutors determine whether a juvenile should be tried as adult on a case-by-case basis; and a proposal that would have let people convicted under a law that later gets revised benefit from the newer, changed law.

“I don’t understand why we can’t get some sort of movement that tips the scale, to me, in favor of what I believe most Floridians want” in reforming criminal justice policies, Sen. Oscar Braynon, a Democrat from Miami Gardens, told the Phoenix last week.

Senate Democratic Minority Leader Audrey Gibson from Jacksonville was also frustrated that the Republican-led Legislature wouldn’t back stronger criminal justice reforms.

“If you believe in second chances for people, then coming up with those policies in a reform package that can help them along the way should be a no brainer,” Gibson said.

One criminal justice reform group slammed the bill as nothing but a “bad joke.”

“Along with tens of thousands of heartbroken families who believed the Legislature would tackle meaningful sentencing reform this year, FAMM is disappointed that lawmakers missed another opportunity to fix real problems in Florida’s criminal justice system,” said Greg Newburn, the state policy director with FAMM (which previously stood for formerly Families Against Mandatory Minimums).

“Just a few months ago, President Trump signed into law retroactive sentencing reforms that will free thousands. Meanwhile, the Florida legislature could only find the courage to repeal a mandatory minimum for a crime related to horsemeat. That’s not reform – it’s a bad joke.”

The vote in the Senate was 39-1, with only Senator Randolph Bracy, a Democrat from Orange County, dissenting. The vote in the House of Representatives was 110-0.

Some House members applauded the legislation on Friday, most of them acknowledging that it was a good start, with hopefully much more reforms to come in the future.

“I wish we could have done more on mandatory minimum (sentences) as well, but I know this our first step,” said Rep. Anna Eskamani, an Orlando Democrat.

“We have nearly 100,000 people in Florida who are inmates housed by our Department of Corrections, and that is costing this state a fortune,” said Rep. Ben Diamond, a Democrat from St.Petersburg.

“I’m just so sorry we weren’t able to do anything for people who are incarcerated,” said Rep. Dianne Hart, a Democrat from Tampa, who had proposed her own legislation to increase “gain time” for inmates with good behavior.

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Mitch Perry
Mitch Perry

Mitch Perry has covered politics and government in Florida for more than two decades. Most recently he is the former politics reporter for Bay News 9. He has also worked at Florida Politics, Creative Loafing and WMNF Radio in Tampa. He was also part of the original staff when the Florida Phoenix was created in 2018.