MIAMI — Gov. Ron DeSantis unveiled a tough-on-crime agenda ahead of the upcoming legislative session, including proposals to expand the death penalty to certain types of sex crimes and mandating life sentences for people convicted of selling fentanyl that looks like candy to children.
“We want to make sure that we cement our reputation as being a law-and-order state and take actions as necessary to help further protect the people of the state of Florida,” he said during a news conference Thursday at the Miami Police Benevolent Association hall. Police officers from several Miami-Dade cities, including Hialeah and Coral Gables, were in the audience.
The governor, reiterating comments he made earlier this week, said a supermajority vote by a jury should be sufficient to impose the death penalty. That would make Florida the second state to allow nonunanimous jury votes for the death penalty, in addition to Alabama.
DeSantis expanded that proposal, saying child sexual abuse — specifically rape — should also be punishable by death, with a minimum sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
“These people don’t care. They are unrepentant,” DeSantis said. “… I believe the only appropriate punishment that would be commensurate to that would be capital.”
The room responded with applause.
The U.S. Supreme Court in 2008 ruled that the death penalty can only be applicable in the instance of murder.
DeSantis said the state will pursue child sexual abuse cases that seek the death penalty and could potentially reach the Supreme Court.
“We do not believe the Supreme Court, in its current iteration, would uphold it,” he said of the 2008 ruling, “and so we are going to be exploring ways to facilitate some capital trials if you have the worst of the worst.”
“Battle against fentanyl”
The governor also included a plan to address what he called the “battle against fentanyl.” Under his proposal, it would become a first-degree felony to possess, sell or manufacture fentanyl to look like candy, with a minimum life sentence and $1 million penalty for people who are targeting children as customers.
“We’re going to take action against this, because this is really targeting our youngest and most vulnerable kids,” he said.
DeSantis said his upcoming budget recommendation will include $20 million for local police agencies to go after fentanyl. “I know that that money will be very, very well spent,” he said.
Bail reform backlash
The governor joined a growing chorus of Florida politicians decrying cash bail reform, saying he plans to petition the Florida Supreme Court to set a uniform bond schedule that all state courts must follow.
When someone can afford to post bail, they can be released from jail quickly while awaiting trial for hundreds of criminal offenses. But people who can’t afford to make bail can spend weeks or months in county custody while awaiting trial on the same charges.
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An effort by judges, prosecutors, county jail administrators and others would make it easier for people with lower incomes to get out of jail on the same schedule as someone with the means to post bail. A final proposal is expected sometime this year.
For the vast majority of charges in Florida, an individual is eligible to put up cash to stay out of jail. But under the new proposal, over 700 specific offenses will be flagged as excludable, meaning a judge must oversee any bond decision. Miami-Dade Chief Judge Nushin Sayfie, who is championing the overhaul, has said that, under the plan, it is likely that more people will actually appear in court.
Despite that, the proposal has generated backlash from Miami-Dade cities. Since December, at least four have passed resolutions opposing or criticizing the plan: Miami Beach, South Miami, West Miami and Doral.
Hialeah Mayor Esteban Bovo said Miami-Dade should be a “hard NO on this liberal idea” in a Twitter post sharing a Jan. 22 Miami Herald article about the effort. Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, standing with President Joe Biden during the U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting in Washington, D.C., last week, also condemned cash bail reform — although his criticism was directed at the concept in general, rather than the Miami-Dade proposal.
At Thursday’s news conference, Capt. Fernando Morales of the Homestead Police Department echoed the opposition.
“In our community, our officers are arresting violent criminals just to see them released a couple days later or, if not, during the same shift,” Morales said.
Miami-Dade’s Corrections Department is part of the team assembling the plan to streamline the county’s bail system and let people be released from jail immediately after arrests for low-level crimes, rather than let bail amounts be barriers to going home before trial.
County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava oversees Corrections. At a news conference Wednesday ahead of her state of the county address, Levine Cava declined to speak about the bail controversy.
“When there’s a final proposal, we’ll review it and weigh in,” she said.
The new plan would utilize software that seeks to predict who may break the law in the future to help determine whether people arrested for certain low-level crimes could be released immediately, rather than being detained until they can attend a bond hearing and learn how much they’ll have to pay to be released.
The use of such software has been controversial. On Thursday, DeSantis said technology can’t replace the “human wisdom” of a judge.
“If you have a circuit judge, that person can be voted out of office if they’re releasing criminals,” he said. “You can’t vote an algorithm out of office.”
Miami Herald staff writer Douglas Hanks contributed to this report.