ST. PETERSBURG — In a room overlooking Tampa Bay, two politicians from opposing parties found common ground on Friday.
Despite a nationally divisive climate, state Sens. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, and Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, agreed: Florida's criminal justice system needs to change.
"(Brandes) and I are diametrically opposed on many political philosophies," said Rouson to a crowd of about 40 at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club. But sitting side by side, they spoke about their combined efforts to push through reform of Florida's "broken" criminal justice system.
"Senator Brandes has become an ally in many respects," Rouson said.
The non-partisan Suncoast Tiger Bay Club hosted the discussion on the future of Florida's criminal justice system and what the two politicians were doing to change it. The panel consisted of Brandes, Rouson and Central Florida Urban League CEO Glen Gilzean. Sarasota Herald-Tribune investigative reporter Emily Le Coz, who reported on an investigation that revealed a racial disparity in sentencing, moderated the event.
During the hourlong discussion, the three panelists answered questions from the audience and Le Coz, who asked how they viewed the system and its fairness in sentencing.
"I have a biased viewpoint when it comes to sentencing and fairness," Rouson replied. "The good news is that judges bring their humanity to the courtroom. The bad news is that judges bring their humanity to the courtroom."
The disparity the Herald-Tribune reported on, which found blacks were given longer prison sentences than whites for the same crime, was nothing new, Rouson said. He added that he believes the majority of sentences handed down from judges are imposed rather than given.
Despite his and Brandes' efforts at reform in the most recent legislative session, Rouson said, their proposals failed. But they plan on trying again.
Brandes believes it's going to take a comprehensive review of the system to bring change. Everything from mental health services, to jails, to prisons and sentencing need to be improved.
"One constant theme is, nobody is saying, 'We got this one section right,' " he said. "It's not like we can just fix one little piece and leave the rest broken."
Gilzean said prevention and intervention are the two areas of importance, and through education, they can begin to repair the state's criminal justice system.
"If we don't resolve the educational crisis that we're faced with, and I use that word correctly, then how can we really resolve the criminal justice system?" he said.
Todd Jennings, president of the Tiger Bay Club, said the event was part of its effort to talk about issues that aren't just based on elections but to tackle other topics like foreign policy, immigration and gun legislation.
Plus, Jennings said: "Younger people want to see more substantive topics," and the club is looking to get more young professionals involved.