Legislature Should Boldly Take First Step in Criminal Justice Reform

Apr 28, 2019 by

The annual Florida legislative session is nearing its end. All the committee meetings have ended and all that’s left are the bills that made it to the floor.

Bills must pass both chambers in identical fashion to reach the governor’s desk for a chance to become law.

Oh and then there’s the budget—the annual spending bill to fund state government. The appropriations bill and its accompanying implementing bills are usually passed on the last day of session–primarily because once a balanced budget is passed the Legislature has performed its only mandated duty for the session.

These last days of session can be hard to follow. As time runs out, legislators start to rush through the process, so their bills have a chance to be heard before the budget bill passes. A familiar refrain on the floor of the House or Senate–when either chamber gets hung up on a piece of legislation eating up time–is “bills are dying.”

Deals are struck; compromises made; bills combined; amendments agreed to or withdrawn—a time when individual legislators and presiding officers show their legislative prowess.

One bill I’m still watching closely is the comprehensive criminal justice reform bill—SB 642, known as the Florida First Step Act. State Sen. Jeff Brandes, the bill’s sponsor, deserves kudos for taking on this herculean task. The House companion bill, HB 7125, doesn’t go nearly as far in making the much-needed reforms to our system of crime and punishment.

During my time in the Legislature, I attempted major criminal justice reform legislation as chair of the Criminal Justice Committee when the unintended consequences of our “tough on crime” legislative spree were becoming apparent. Attempts to change these laws were met with great resistance.

This year’s Senate bill is one of the most comprehensive since those discussions a decade ago.

The bill won’t affect more than half of the state’s inmates who are incarcerated for violent crimes. Its impact will be felt by the 36 percent who are in prison for nonviolent drug or property offenses.

In a nutshell, the bill tries to end excessive mandatory minimum sentences and prison time for low-level drug offenders while creating early-release programs that help inmates successfully adjust to life outside of prison.

Specifically, the bill allows some deviation from mandatory minimums by allowing the judge greater discretion. It also raises the threshold for felony theft from $300 to $750.

It seeks outside agencies to provide more inmate reentry services and to assist imprisoned veterans in seeking veterans’ benefits.

It allows inmates to earn gain time for participating in a Prison Entrepreneurship program that includes education. It allows the court or the Department of Corrections to transfer low-risk inmates to administrative probation if they have completed at least half of their probation. It requires alternative sanctions to handle technical probation violations with the judge’s approval.

The bill does a few things that appear positive, but I fear may be inroads to weaken Amendment 4—the Restoration of Rights for Ex-Offenders. It requires the DOC to notify each offender of all terms of their sentence at the time of release and to include in the Florida Crime Information System all conditions of probation determined by the court.

If these are requirements imposed by the judge at the time of sentencing and not fees and fines subsequently assessed by the courts, these are sound policy proposals.

The House proposal is incredibly weak compared to the Senate version and does not allow for reductions in minimum mandatory sentences.

State economists recently estimated that taxpayers would save $74 million the first year and $860 million over five years if minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders were reduced from 85% to 65%.

Our prison system is a mess. It’s understaffed, with little money for training, promotion, inmate programs or facility repair. We incarcerate nearly 100,000 inmates at an annual cost of nearly $2.5 billion.

That’s our next big challenge—to reform how our prisons are run. But for now the Brandes bill is a bold start toward fixing part of our criminal justice system.

Don’t let this bill die or get watered down in the session’s final days.

Encourage your representatives to support the Senate version—SB 642—and ask Gov. Ron DeSantis to vocally offer his support at this critical time.

Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland. She is now a registered NPA. PBDockery@gmail.com.

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