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Florida Legislature sends criminal justice reform to DeSantis, but advocates see mixed victory

The bill that passed is the result of negotiations between the Florida House and Senate.
Florida Senator Jeff Brandes, R- St. Petersburg. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published May 3
Updated May 6

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Legislature passed a 296-page criminal justice reform package bill Friday, the last full day of the session, addressing the issue of a bulging prison population that has long eluded resolution on both sides of the aisle.

“The rule of law is about what you do, not who you are,” said Rep. Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, who sponsored the bill in the House. “Our goal… is to make sure we have the fairest, most just criminal justice system in the country and today we take a large step in that direction.”

Reshaping Florida’s tough-on-crime policies and reducing the state’s nearly 100,000-person prison population is a rare issue that has united Trump populists and progressive civil rights groups, yet often results in open and closed-door fights among Republicans over how far to go.

This year, compromise was reached. The House passed the bill unanimously Friday, following the Senate’s near-unanimous passage on Thursday. The bill now heads to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk.

Despite the victory for Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg, who’s long been a leading voice in the Legislature for the need for criminal justice reform, the bill’s passage was bittersweet.

“I am incredibly disappointed,” he said Thursday, referring to several big-ticket reform pieces were taken out of the bill at the behest of the House. “I’m not surprised we didn’t get there, but I think what we did was advance the conversation.”

House Bill 7125 is the result of private negotiations between the two chambers over the past week, and contains many changes proposed by those seeking to reshape Florida’s tough-on-crime laws from the 1990s. That includes making it easier for felons to get professional licenses and allowing state attorneys to decide whether juvenile cases should be transferred to adult court. Currently, that happens automatically if the crime is severe or the child has certain priors convictions.

It also would raise the “threshold” dollar amount at which theft charges go from a misdemeanor to a felony, from $300 to $750. That’s not as high as the House’s original proposal, which was to raise it to $1,000, but it brings Florida’s law closer to the national average. It also eliminates or reduces driver’s license suspensions as a criminal penalty, which lawmakers have said unfairly hampered people’s ability to get to their jobs and continue to make an honest living.

The bill has been dubbed the “Florida First Step Act” after the federal reform law with the same name. Shortly after the bill passed the House, Kara Gross, the legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said the bill amounted to “a baby step, at best.”

“This Legislature had the opportunity to support meaningful reform ... and they chose not to,” she wrote in a statement, referencing the pieces eliminated in the final compromise version.

What didn’t make the cut of the final bill:

• Allowing judges discretion over sentences for certain drug crimes that currently have required amounts of time that defendants must serve, called “mandatory minimum” sentences.

• Permitting prison inmates convicted of nonviolent felonies to be released after serving a minimum 65 percent of their sentence if they have good behavior and participate in educational and rehabilitative programs (current law is 85 percent).

• Retroactive re-sentencing for people who were convicted of aggravated assault back when the state’s punishment for that crime was harsher than it is now.

Email messages between House and Senate staff obtained by the Times/Herald show that the House had, at one point last week, been “comfortable” with modified language related to giving judges more discretion over sentences for nonviolent drug crimes, reducing the length of some sentences.

But that didn’t make it into the final bill.

“If you think of it as a boat, with people in that boat, if you keep adding people with new ideas, the boat can capsize and sink,” Renner explained when asked about the omission of judicial discretion. “This needs to be done incrementally, in my opinion. … What we’ve got is a product that won’t in any way jeopardize public safety.”

Despite some lukewarm support for giving judges more sentencing discretion, Gov. Ron DeSantis poured cold water on the idea of letting inmates out after serving 65 percent of their sentence, likely one of the reasons that piece was scrapped.

As part of the analysis conducted to evaluate the impact of Brandes’ original bill, state analysts crunched the numbers as to what would happen if inmates were allowed to be released earlier. The answer was eye-popping: By 2024, $860 million would be saved and about 9,000 additional prisoners would be released. That analysis could make advocating for this policy easier in the future, Brandes said.

The bill passed with only one “no” vote in the Senate, which came from Sen. Randolph Bracy, D-Orlando, who praised Brandes’ efforts but said that he, too, was frustrated with the compromise.

“Honestly, I’m tired of submitting to the will of the House on these types of issues,” he said.

Still, the willingness of the House, traditionally the more tough-on-crime chamber, to cobble together a criminal justice reform package of this size shows a shift of tone, however subtle, toward reducing Florida’s massive prison population.

Friday’s bill also creates a task force to reevaluate Florida’s entire criminal punishment code, and whether the set punishments fit the crime.

House Speaker José Oliva said that this bill is the result of several years of discussion on this issue. Lawmakers in both the House and Senate have said they intend on taking up some of the issues that failed next year.

“Sometimes ideas take time for people to understand and to have a chance to really let set in. For a lot of years the idea was being tough on crime,” Oliva said recently. He added, though, that data showing the harms of these policies “started a conversation. I think that conversation is now maturing.”

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