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Is Florida’s ‘tough-on-crime’ era vanishing?

A group of lawmakers in the Florida House, which has typically had more of its members with tough-on-crime stances at odds with many of the proposals, has sponsored a 250-plus page bill that proposes numerous changes.

It still has a long way to go, but lawmakers in both the House and Senate are negotiating sweeping changes to Florida’s criminal justice system.

The negotiations are, in fact, a possible sign of an impending breakthrough on the issue that has struggled to pass in prior years, said several reform advocates and lawmakers.

“This year we have new leadership across the board, we have members who have taken the time to really study and look at criminal justice issues across the state,” said Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Naples. “I think everybody knows … we can’t treat the Department of Corrections like the department of warehousing anymore.”

A group of lawmakers in the Florida House, which has typically had more of its members with tough-on-crime stances at odds with many of the proposals, has sponsored a 250-plus page bill that proposes numerous changes. Those include giving judges more discretion over whether to transfer juvenile cases to adult court; raising the minimum dollar amount for theft to be considered a felony; and making it easier for former felons to get professional licenses for jobs like barbering and cosmetology.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, took it a step further Tuesday, replacing the entire Senate version of his criminal justice bill with 360 pages that adopted the House’s policies, plus several of new additions.

One of those new pieces would require the state to go back and re-sentence people who were convicted of aggravated assault in years prior to the state easing their sentencing rules for that crime, a process which would likely immediately lower the prison population. The Senate’s version also allows judges to deviate from pre-determined “mandatory minimum” sentences, or a required number of years a person must spend in prison based on the crime committed, for certain drug offenses.

“I think for a lot of us who have been around for awhile, session really started this week. This is when everything begins to get negotiated,” Brandes said. “My goal, and I think the House’s goal, is to take a first step on criminal justice reform.”

Still, there are also signs that the optimism could be premature. Several obstacles exist for either of these wholesale criminal justice packages to be passed on the floor of either chamber.

The Florida Sheriffs Association, a group with substantial political clout, came out in opposition on Tuesday to a piece of the Senate bill, which would allow some inmates who participate in educational or workforce programs to be considered for release after they serve at least 65 percent of their sentence. Currently, the minimum is 85 percent.

“Allowing criminals to serve only a fraction of their sentence sends the clear message that criminals are more important than victims,” the association said in a statement. “A major reason we enjoy a low crime rate today is because criminals are serving the time deserved and not getting a ‘get out of jail free’ card.”

But the hesitancy could come from a place even closer to home, warned Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, who is designated to be the next speaker of the House in 2020.

He cautioned that there’s much negotiating to do — both between the chambers and within them, to build a greater consensus among lawmakers in order for these bills to keep moving. In the past, Sprowls has advocated for the state to better analyze its criminal justice statistics before moving too quickly to change its laws.

“I think people address criminal justice reform like it’s a single organism and the reality is it’s the opposite,” he said. “You have all these things which are radically different policies designed to achieve varying ends. You have to look at them individually.”

“What is possible (to pass) in both chambers, we don’t know that yet,” he added.

And of course, any bill that is successfully backed by both chambers would also need to be signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis. He hasn’t spoken out much about his views on criminal justice reform nor has his administration pushed the idea behind-the-scenes.

But his vote for President Donald Trump’s prison and sentencing reform law while he was in Congress, plus a few past comments saying he was open to changing Florida’s criminal justice laws, have encouraged some lawmakers who are hoping DeSantis will be supportive.

Democrats, too, have started to come on board.

That’s noteworthy in the Senate especially, where just last week progressive groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center said that they were opposed to Brandes’ bill, because they feared certain measures designed to reduce the prison population would end up helping white prisoners more than their minority counterparts.

But Brandes added in language that would require a “racial impact statement” to be conducted on all criminal justice bills to ensure there was not a disproportionate impact on one group of people over another.

“While this legislation is not perfect, it is a solid step toward reforming a system that locks up too many people,” said a statement from Scott McCoy, senior policy counsel for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Action Fund. “We lock up too many people of color now, and these analyses will help policymakers attend to these racial disparities.”

One criminal justice reform advocate, Greg Newburn, the state policy director of FAMM, an acronym that previously stood for Families Against Mandatory Minimums and now stands for nothing, said even with all these hurdles, the signs point to a bill getting passed this session. It’s just a question of which pieces will make the final cut.

“There’s not perfect overlap here but the sense that something needs to change is breath of fresh air because for a long time people were just intransigent,” he said. “Obviously we’ve pierced that veil.”