Florida GOP leaders again pitching criminal justice reforms, but change has come slowly
TALLAHASSEE - After decades of taking a tough-on-crime approach, Florida leaders have steadily worked on a bipartisan basis to ease some of the harsher aspects of the state’s criminal justice system.
But change has come slowly, and that may continue in 2020.
Few public policy issues have generated more buzz in recent years, as lawmakers around the nation have engaged in a wholesale rethinking of how the legal system deals with criminals, especially lower level offenders.
Questions of racial discrimination, financial prudence and basic fairness have bracketed the debate.
Top GOP leaders in the Florida Legislature have championed the issue, with reform bills passing the last two years and several new proposals put forward for the 60-day legislative session that began earlier this month.
Some of the more ambitious measures are aimed at reducing Florida’s prison population by easing sentences.
A bill that would change drug sentencing laws is close to passing the Florida Senate. The measure, sponsored by Sen. Rob Bradley, has advanced through three Senate committees with unanimous support.
But similar legislation has yet to receive a committee hearing in the Florida House, illustrating a big divide between the chambers — and within the GOP — on the criminal justice issue.
Conservatives in the Florida House so far only have been willing to approve modest criminal justice reforms.
Last year they agreed to increase the threshold for felony theft, moving it from $300 to $750.
The year before they approved legislation championed by former state Senate president Joe Negron aimed at increasing the use of civil citations and pre-arrest diversion programs for juveniles who commit minor crimes.
Both bills sought to reduce penalties in certain circumstances, but their overall impact is marginal. Much bigger changes to sentencing laws were rejected.
“Sentencing reform has been somewhat elusive,” Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said recently.
Now many of the sentencing reform bills are back, and they’re continuing to meet with resistance in the House.
Asked last week about reforms that could reduce the prison population, GOP state Rep. Jamie Grant — who chairs the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee — pointed to a book he read that he said dispels “the notion that our prisons are just flooded with low level, non-violent people.”
“When some of the conversations are being had around how do we significantly reduce the prison population, people need to understand that means letting out some really violent, dangerous people,” Grant added. “And so let’s put that at the middle and now have the conversation.”
Criminal justice legislation typically goes through Grant’s committee, so his skepticism toward broad sentencing reforms is a potential roadblock.
Instead, Grant talks about helping people who are leaving prison find work and housing and integrate back into society. He touted proposals dealing with sealing and expunging criminal records and making it easier for workers with criminal records to get occupational licenses, which are needed for many jobs.
Grant also said that identifying individuals who were wrongfully convicted and helping them is a priority. A bill that recently cleared his committee would repeal the so-called “clean hands” provision that prevents individuals who have been exonerated in one criminal case but not others from receiving compensation without going through the Legislature.
State Rep. Bobby DuBose, D-Fort Lauderdale, is sponsoring the clean hands bill. While that measure is moving in the House, another DuBose bill that would allow older prisoners and those with certain medical conditions to petition for conditional release has yet to receive a hearing in Grant’s committee.
Meanwhile, a pair of conditional release bills dealing with the same prisoners have advanced in the Senate.
“The House has not necessarily moved as swiftly as the Senate but we are moving,” on criminal justice reform, DuBose said, adding: “I think there’s a general appetite. It’s national, and it’s showing its face in Florida.”
One of the most significant criminal justice reform bills that has gained traction in the Senate is the drug sentencing measure sponsored by Bradley, who spent time as a prosecutor.
The bill (SB 346) would allow judges to depart from mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug crimes.
“For instance, if the defendant is an addict who shows potential in life and is able to demonstrate that to the court, the court could fashion a sentence where probation is more appropriate than spending seven years in prison,” Bradley said during a recent committee hearing. “And we could perhaps reclaim a life rather than send that individual to a life that is very expensive for taxpayers and will not have a lot of hope for the future.”
Bradley’s legislation passed the Senate Appropriations Committee by a 19-0 vote this month and is now ready for a vote on the Senate floor.
Rep. Alex Andrade, R-Pensacola, and Rep. Mike Greico, D-Miami Beach, are sponsoring a similar bill in the House (HB 339) that would allow courts to depart from mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug crimes. The legislation has 25 co-sponsors, a number of whom are conservative Republicans.
The first stop for the bill is Grant’s committee.
“Everything’s got a chance of being a heard; we’re still taking a look at it and we’re still trying to figure out where we land,” Grant said of the legislation.
House Speaker Jose Oliva defended his chamber’s record on criminal justice reform last week, saying: “I think we’ve done a good deal.” He mentioned a data collection measure that was paired with Negron’s juvenile justice initiative. It was touted as a way to identify racial disparities in sentencing.
As to whether the House would consider going along with the Senate on drug sentencing, Oliva said: “No one wants to have more people in jail than need to be there.”
But he added that House leaders want to make sure they aren’t letting people out who will “cause someone some sort of issue.”
“We have make sure that we understand how that process works,” he said.