1. Opinion

Editorial: Hope for criminal justice reforms

With four days left in the Florida Legislature's annual session, one of the last big issues left to be resolved is criminal justice reform. There are enough good ideas left in play that lawmakers involved in the negotiations, including Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg and Rep. Chris Sprowls of Palm Harbor, should not miss this opportunity to compromise and move forward. Florida cannot afford to keep paying the rising costs for nearly 96,000 prison inmates and keep clinging to outdated policies that lock up too many nonviolent offenders.

Both the House and Senate criminal justice packages would raise the threshold for felony theft from $300. That outdated number has not been changed in years and ranks among the lowest in the nation. The Senate initially wanted to raise the threshold to $750 and the House wanted $1,000, so it should not be hard to agree on a reasonable number. This change alone should provide nonviolent offenders a better opportunity to get on the right path and help the state reduce criminal justice costs.

There also is broad support for reducing the crimes that can result in the suspension of a driver's license but are not related to driving. This has been a key issue for years for Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, and it should be included in any agreement. In a state with so little mass transit, the ability to drive is critical to reach jobs. The House bill, for example, reduces a driver's license suspension for adults convicted of a drug offense from a year to six months. Licenses no longer could be suspended for adults convicted of misdemeanor theft or for juveniles convicted of possession of alcohol or tobacco. These changes do not go as far as they should, but they are a good start.

Similarly, the final legislation is expected to include smart changes that limit when the state can deny professional and occupational licenses because of criminal convictions. In general, only a criminal record within five years of applying for a license could be considered unless the crime was a forcible felony or was directly related to the profession or occupation. There is no reason barbers, cosmetologists, home inspectors and others who need a state license should be denied an opportunity to work because of a minor crime unrelated to their line of work that was committed years ago.

The legislation passed by the House on Monday, HB 7125, does not go as far enough in several respects. For example, it lacks any substantive diversion programs for first-time drug offenders that could significantly reduce prison costs. It does not retroactively apply legislative changes already made to some minimum mandatory sentences as the Senate bill does, which would be the fairer approach. The House also stubbornly refuses to embrace the Senate's practical approach that would allow prison inmates convicted of nonviolent crimes to be released after serving 65 percent of their sentences instead of the now-required 85 percent. Sprowls, a former assistant state attorney, and other House Republicans continue to cling to outdated tough-on-crime requirements that are no longer needed in era of far lower crime rates and that the state cannot afford.

Most disturbing is a frontal attack on public records in both the House and Senate versions of the legislation. They would require the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to automatically seal criminal history records in many cases where the person was arrested but not charged, the charges were later dismissed or the defendant was found not guilty. That means businesses that routinely run FDLE background checks on prospective employees — or families who perform background checks before hiring someone to care for their children — would get an incomplete picture of the person they may hire. This is not in the interest of public safety or transparency, and the section should be removed.

There are still four days to improve this criminal justice reform package. The Senate should make reasonable revisions, and the House should be open to them.