When it comes to justice, Florida lawmakers should listen to citizens
Floridians support common-sense reforms on criminal justice. | Column
A thunderstorm moves over Florida's Death Row at Union Correctional Institution, Raiford, Fla.
A thunderstorm moves over Florida's Death Row at Union Correctional Institution, Raiford, Fla. [ CHERIE DIEZ | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Oct. 1, 2019
Natishia June, deputy field director for the ACLU of Florida
Natishia June, deputy field director for the ACLU of Florida [ Provided by the ACLU of Florida ]

Floridians believe in second chances and support criminal justice reform.

For evidence, look at the last election where over 60 percent of voters supported restoring voting rights to returning citizens after they complete their sentence, excluding those convicted of murder and felony sexual offenses.

More than 60 percent of Floridians also supported changing the state constitution to allow criminal justice sentencing reforms to be applied to people currently incarcerated, not just those sentenced in the future.

Polls conducted by conservative and progressive pollsters have shown a clear majority of voters support common-sense reforms like providing non-violent drug offenders with substance abuse treatment, instead of multi-year or multi-decade prison sentences. They also support increasing mental health services, educational programming, and vocational training to ensure that individuals are able to successfully reintegrate in their communities and become productive citizens once released from prison.

As I meet with directly impacted people, law enforcement officials, faith and business leaders across the state, most agree that incarcerated Floridians should be able to reduce their sentences through good behavior, completion of education or job training courses, or by performing an outstanding deed, such as saving a life of a fellow inmate or guard. However, Florida Statutes currently arbitrarily place a 15% limit on the amount of time one can earn off their sentence for good behavior and engaging in such programs.

The Florida Legislature passed a criminal justice reform package earlier this year that in small ways amended some of the most outdated criminal statutes. Some legislators and reporters have called this the “Florida First Step Act,” after the federal First Step Act, passed by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump in December.

But if the goal is to tackle Florida's mass incarceration crisis, equating Florida’s bill with the national measure is a major overstatement. The federal First Step Act freed more than 3,000 from prison and halfway houses across the country and invests millions of dollars into reentry support, among other initiatives.

I think it’s wrong to call Florida’s modest reform by the name of the First Step Act when it invests zero dollars in reentry, gets zero people out of prison, and has no impact on racial disparities that have resulted in a much higher percentage of black Floridians being incarcerated than whites. It is smart policy to champion reforms that reduce recidivism and racial disparities.

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Here are three common-sense reforms all Floridians should support:

  • If incarcerated people earn time off their sentences for good behavior and engaging in rehabilitative programming, let them use it. Don't arbitrarily cap the time a person can use to reduce their sentence at 15 percent.
  • Decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana.
  • Ensure that individuals who are not a danger to the community are not kept in jail awaiting trial because they can’t afford bail.

These reforms have been successfully implemented in other states. By following their example, members of the Florida Legislature and the governor could help end the state’s mass incarceration crisis.

Natishia Y. June is the deputy field director at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida.