Florida lawmakers serve criminal justice reform with a side of horse meat

“Our goal is nothing less than to have best criminal justice system in the nation,” said Rep. Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, as he presented the bill to the House Judiciary Committee earlier this week.
State Senator Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg. [DIRK SHADD   |   Times]
State Senator Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published April 10, 2019|Updated April 11, 2019

TALLAHASSEE — Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, has warned of a crisis in Florida’s prisons for years.

“The criminal justice system is broken,” he said recently. “The state cannot support 96,000 inmates.”

Fueling the crisis, Brandes and others say, is that judges are required to sentence offenders to a pre-defined number of years in prison based on the crimes they committed, often called “mandatory minimums.”

Changing Florida’s laws surrounding mandatory sentences has been a chief goal of Brandes’ in past legislative sessions. This year he’s filed a major criminal justice reform bill that’s moving through the Florida Senate which makes a myriad of proposals aimed at focusing prisons more on the rehabilitation of inmates.

Just last week, the House filed its long-awaited response. It’s a sweeping 259-page package that’s been praised by reform advocates from both the right and the left — not exactly typical in a conservative House that’s resisted softening tough-on-crime stances popularized in the 1990s.

“Our goal is nothing less than to have best criminal justice system in the nation,” said Rep. Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, as he presented the bill to the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, its first public hearing.

One key provision: It allows people with prior felony convictions to more easily get professional licenses to become barbers, cosmetologists and air conditioning contractors. That change was sought by felons, like those in the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition group which helped get Amendment 4 on the ballot to allow former felons to vote.

Still, advocates from both progressive and conservative groups also point out the same omission from the House package: easing mandatory minimums. Brandes’ bill would allow judges to have discretion over the sentences they hand down for certain drug trafficking crimes — under current law for example, someone caught with at least 28 grams of cocaine would face a required sentence of at least three years imprisonment and a $50,000 fine.

The House bill would abolish a mandatory minimum sentence for only one crime. And it’s an obscure one: Illegally selling horse meat for human consumption that’s not properly labeled.

“We applaud House leadership for putting together a solid package of reforms, however, we hope to see stronger sentencing reform,” said Chelsea Murphy, the Florida director for Right on Crime, a conservative criminal justice reform group based in Texas.

This difference in the bills represents an ongoing philosophical conflict between the chambers over criminal justice. House Republicans have often pointed to the state’s crime rate, which is experiencing a 47-year-low, as proof that the current system is working.

Those sentiments were voiced on Tuesday by Rep. Walter “Mike” Hill, R-Pensacola, who said the House bill’s proposed changes could embolden criminals.

“I worry that by passing this bill we’re going to send a signal to too many that you can commit a crime and not get in serious trouble for it,” he said.

Despite these concerns, the House bill passed unanimously through its first committee Tuesday with bipartisan support.

Rep. James Grant, R-Tampa, who’s chair of the House’s criminal justice committee, said that the House is open to adding more sentencing changes to their bill.

In 2019, politics seem to be on Brandes’ side.

Late last year, President Donald Trump signed the federal “First Step Act,” which will allow federal prisoners to earn earlier releases and eases mandatory minimums in federal court.

“Hopefully Florida can follow in his (Trump’s) footsteps,” said Murphy of Right on Crime.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, a former military prosecutor, has said he’s “open to the idea” of judges being able to depart from certain mandatory minimum sentences.

Even though Brandes’ bill aims to reduce sentences for some crimes, several progressive groups say that the mechanism the bill uses to offer judges more autonomy could be racially biased because those with clean criminal records would benefit. People previously convicted of a “dangerous” crime — which includes homicide but also robbery and carjacking — would be ineligible to get a reduced sentence.

“The problem with that, is when we looked at the data, people more likely to have prior convictions for those so-called ‘dangerous crimes’ are more likely to be people of color,” said Scott McCoy, the senior policy counsel for the Southern Poverty Law Center. “We are definitely in favor of criminal justice reform but we’re not in favor of criminal justice reform that worsens racial disparities in the system.”

But McCoy, too, said he was also hopeful this issue could be resolved as the chambers haggle over the final language.

Aside from the sentencing issue, the House’s package would also raise the “threshold” dollar amount for a theft, from $300 to $1,000, to trigger a felony charge.

The House bill also allows state attorneys to decide if juvenile cases should be transferred to adult court, which currently happens automatically if the crime is severe or the child has certain prior convictions.

“We’re in a fractured time, politically, in our country. But this area of criminal justice reform has been an area where we’ve been able — at the federal level and now in Tallahassee — to come together,” said Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg. “This takes an important step forward.”

In addition to the negotiations over the two bills, the chambers will also have to agree how to finance reform. The Senate’s budget bill included a section that would create a task force to reevaluate Florida’s entire criminal code to consider if the punishments are suitable for the crimes.

“There is a basket of ideas that are out there,” Brandes said. “We need to work together to address them.”