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  1. Opinion

Promising start for criminal justice reform. What’s next?

More emphasis on rehabilitation and a review of court fines and fees would be a start, a columnist writes.
Aswad Thomas is Managing Director of Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice, a national network of 30,000 crime survivors with local chapters across Florida. Thomas is also a survivor of gun violence. [ASWAD THOMAS | Aswad Thomas]

Earlier this month, Florida’s most expansive criminal justice reform in 20 years went into effect. We are finally seeing this state change its approach on public safety to be “smart on crime.”

Florida has historically relied on laws that focus on sending more people to prison for longer. Yet little attention has been fixed on policies to meaningfully stop the cycle of crime by reducing recidivism and meeting the needs of crime victims.

That changed this past session. For the first time in Florida’s history, criminal justice reforms to reduce over-incarceration were passed in partnership with crime victims.

The changes in HB 7125 will have a major, direct impact on the lives of thousands of Floridians in myriad ways. Survivors of crime across the state (including those involved in the Parkland and Pulse tragedies) now have three times longer to access recovery support. With changes to occupational licensing, people with a past conviction now have the ability to earn gainful employment, which research shows is proven to reduce recidivism. Hundreds of Floridians were unnecessarily ending up in overcrowded state prisons every year because of minor rule violations of probation—the legislation ensures the state begins to significantly address this issue.

It can be easy to lose sight of how changes impact real people, but the story of Darla and Elliot Saunders from Tampa is a demonstration of why these reforms are so important to actual Floridians. After their son was murdered 14 years ago, they weren’t allowed to apply for victim compensation while the police investigated. If the legislation had been in place, the Saunders family would have been able to receive the victim compensation and counseling they desperately needed.

Especially for crime victims in communities hardest hit by crime, victim compensation can mean the difference between being able to pay for their loved ones’ funeral or not, or for receiving counseling or having to live with unaddressed trauma. A recent survey of crime victims across Florida found that only 25 percent of victims received any information about support services after a crime, and only 14 percent received counseling or mental health support.

There is much work to be done across the board. There are 45 other states that have policies that incentivize rehabilitation for those who are incarcerated, and almost all of them are seeing measurable reductions in recidivism; it’s time that Florida look directly at ways to do the same.

Additionally, the state’s system of court fines and fees deserves a closer look to make sure that they are rational and align with best practice. Lawmakers in Texas recently explored this issue, and there is no reason that Florida can’t as well.

We see the changes contained in HB 7125 as a beginning, not the end, of tackling these issues. For the first time in decades, we have the momentum to continue creating lasting changes to advance safety for Floridians. Let’s continue moving forward and keep the people whose lives are impacted at the center of the conversation.

Aswad Thomas is managing director of Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice, a national network of 30,000 crime survivors with local chapters across Florida. Thomas is also a survivor of gun violence.