« "When Plea Bargaining Became Normal" | Main | Assembling criminal justice questions for the 2020 Prez field »

May 4, 2019

Florida legislature passes it own first (very baby) step act on criminal justice reform

This local article out of Florida, headlined "Legislature OKs criminal justice reforms but no change to mandatory-minimum sentencing," reports on how the Sunshine State is starting to move forward on reform inspired clearly by the federal FIRST STEP Act. But, as the article explains, political challenges have resulted in Florida's first step being even more limited that what has been achieved at the federal level:

The Florida Legislature passed a 296-page criminal justice reform package bill Friday, the last full day of the session, addressing the issue of a bulging prison population that has long eluded resolution....

Reshaping Florida’s tough-on-crime policies and reducing the state’s nearly 100,000-person prison population is a rare issue that has united Trump populists and progressive civil rights groups, yet often results in open and closed-door fights among Republicans over how far to go.

This year, compromise was reached. The House passed the bill unanimously Friday, following the Senate’s near-unanimous passage on Thursday. The bill now heads to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk. Despite the victory for Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg, who’s long been a leading voice in the Legislature for the need for criminal justice reform, the bill’s passage was bittersweet.

“I am incredibly disappointed,” he said Thursday, referring to several big-ticket reform pieces that were taken out of the bill at the behest of the House. “I’m not surprised we didn’t get there, but I think what we did was advance the conversation.”

House Bill 7125 is the result of private negotiations between the two chambers over the past week and contains many changes proposed by those seeking to reshape Florida’s tough-on-crime laws from the 1990s. That includes making it easier for felons to get professional licenses and allowing state attorneys to decide whether juvenile cases should be transferred to adult court. Currently, that happens automatically if the crime is severe or the child has certain prior convictions.

It also would raise the “threshold” dollar amount at which theft charges go from a misdemeanor to a felony, from $300 to $750. That’s not as high as the House’s original proposal, which was to raise it to $1,000, but it brings Florida’s law closer to the national average. It also eliminates or reduces driver’s license suspensions as a criminal penalty, which lawmakers have said unfairly hampered people’s ability to get to their jobs and continue to make an honest living.

The bill has been dubbed the “Florida First Step Act” after the federal reform law with the same name. Shortly after the bill passed the House, Kara Gross, the legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said the bill amounted to “a baby step, at best.”...

What didn’t make the cut of the final bill:

▪ Allowing judges discretion over sentences for certain drug crimes that currently have required amounts of time that defendants must serve, called “mandatory minimum” sentences.

▪ Permitting prison inmates convicted of nonviolent felonies to be released after serving a minimum 65 percent of their sentence if they have good behavior and participate in educational and rehabilitative programs (current law is 85 percent).

▪ Retroactive re-sentencing for people who were convicted of aggravated assault back when the state’s punishment for that crime was harsher than it is now.

Email messages between House and Senate staff obtained by the Herald/Times show that the House had, at one point last week, been “comfortable” with modified language related to giving judges more discretion over sentences for nonviolent drug crimes, reducing the length of some sentences. But that didn’t make it into the final bill....

Despite some lukewarm support for giving judges more sentencing discretion, Gov. Ron DeSantis poured cold water on the idea of letting inmates out after serving 65 percent of their sentence, likely one of the reasons that piece was scrapped....

The bill passed with only one “no” vote in the Senate, which came from Sen. Randolph Bracy, D-Orlando, who praised Brandes’ efforts but said that he, too, was frustrated with the compromise. “Honestly, I’m tired of submitting to the will of the House on these types of issues,” he said.

Still, the willingness of the House, traditionally the more tough-on-crime chamber, to cobble together a criminal justice reform package of this size shows a shift of tone, however subtle, toward reducing Florida’s burgeoning prison population.

Friday’s bill also creates a task force to reevaluate Florida’s entire criminal punishment code, and whether the set punishments fit the crime. House Speaker José Oliva said that this bill is the result of several years of discussion on this issue. Lawmakers in both the House and Senate have said they intend on taking up some of the issues that failed next year. “Sometimes ideas take time for people to understand and to have a chance to really let set in. For a lot of years the idea was being tough on crime,” Oliva said recently. He added, though, that data showing the harms of these policies “started a conversation. I think that conversation is now maturing.”

I am sorry to see that Florida is not moving forward on bolder reforms, but there is still good reason to celebrate reform efforts finding expression in this historically tough state.  Given that it took a full 40 years to ramp up incarceration level to historical levels, nobody should expect changes in the forces and laws developed in the tough era to happen quickly or without lots of fits and starts.

May 4, 2019 at 10:37 AM | Permalink

Comments

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB