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Column: Missed opportunities on civil liberties

As dust settles on the 2014 Florida legislative session, the verdict seems to be: "Well, it could have been worse."

Compared to recent years, which saw a nearly unprecedented assault on the rights of state workers, poor people, women, doctors and voters, this session seemed downright tame.

Whether humbled by court defeats striking down laws they enacted or by recognition that eroding Floridians' constitutional rights isn't good election-year politics, this year the Legislature seems to have taken on a different tone.

That's not to say it was all good. "Do no harm" is not enough when there are urgent problems that need correction and opportunities to make things better. Unfortunately, the Legislature let many of those opportunities slip by.

The most discussed missed opportunity — a deliberately ignored opportunity really — was the refusal to even consider any strategy, including using federal funds to expand Medicaid, to provide affordable access to the basic health care insurance that many of us take for granted.

But there were many missed opportunities to directly address pressing civil liberties problems, including bills that would have reformed Florida's broken juvenile justice system. For too long, leaders in our cities and schools have relied on criminal justice solutions as a response to the behavioral problems of children. These "solutions" have funneled young people out of classrooms and into jail cells.

But young people aren't adults, and caging them for behavior problems as if they are denies them future opportunities and increases the likelihood they'll reoffend. Sometimes looking at the criminal justice system for a solution only makes a problem worse.

Bills filed in this session of the Legislature would have revised the age and offense criteria for which prosecutors could charge a juvenile as an adult and would require police to issue civil citations to kids who commit "non-serious delinquent acts" rather than charge them criminally. But neither of these bills was even discussed in a committee meeting, much less given serious consideration.

Another broken part of our criminal justice system is the death penalty, and legislators dropped the ball there, too. Florida is the only state where a simple majority of jurors can recommend a sentence of death: a policy that has contributed to our state bearing the shameful distinction of having the largest number of mistakes and exonerations from death row.

A bill that would have required a unanimous jury recommendation for a death sentence would have ensured that Florida only sentenced defendants to die when there was certainty among the entire jury that the most extreme punishment was reserved for the "worst of the worst." That bill was never discussed.

Legislators had an opportunity to make it easier for all Floridians to register to vote and participate in our democracy. But a bill that would have brought Florida into the 21st century by joining other states that allow online voter registration went nowhere because legislative leaders decided not to address election reforms.

And speaking of bringing Florida into the 21st century, a bill that would have provided basic civil rights protection in employment, education and housing by prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity or expression never got a hearing.

And while in the 11th hour the Legislature did address discrimination against Florida's immigrant community by passing a bill that gives all Florida students an equal opportunity for in-state tuition rates that make the dream of a college education reachable, there was more they could and should have done. Legislators should have passed the bill ensuring that all Florida drivers, including immigrant students who need to drive to college classes or adults who need to get to work to provide for their families, can obtain a driver's license. This year, like with so many other opportunities, the bill was not even considered.

If legislators are returning to their districts trying to make the case that the Legislature has turned over a new leaf, they'll have to address the many missed opportunities to protect Floridians' individual liberties while they were in Tallahassee.

Hopefully, these members will commit to completing the Legislature's turnaround from being openly hostile to Floridians' rights in next year's session. If not, perhaps voters will replace them in November with members who will.

Howard Simon is executive director and Baylor Johnson is media relations manager of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. They wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

Column: Missed opportunities on civil liberties 05/26/14 [Last modified: Monday, May 26, 2014 4:45pm]

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