Judiciary chair to prioritize the collection of criminal justice data
By Jan Pudlow
When Chris Sprowls was an 18-year-old high-school senior, he was diagnosed with the scary C-word.
He had Hodgkin’s lymphoma. After surgery to remove tumors and eight months of chemotherapy, alongside very sick people who shared their thoughts about life, he survived — and gained the bonus of a new attitude.
“The experience is not something I would trade for anything,” said Sprowls, a Republican state representative from Palm Harbor.
“It’s really been an asset to view life as a precious thing and to try to live fully, realizing life is short.”
Sprowls is wasting no time rising in the leadership ranks at the Florida Legislature.
At only 30 years old, he was elected to represent the 65th District in 2014, and subsequently re-elected, and his office is in Clearwater. He chairs the House Judiciary Committee, serves on the Appropriations Committee, the Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness, and the Rules & Policy Committee.
He is in line to become speaker of the House for the 2021 session.
House Speaker Richard Corcoran appointed Sprowls to serve on the Constitution Revision Commission that reviews and proposes changes to the Florida Constitution every 20 years, and the 37-member group began holding policy committee meetings this month.
But his first public service began right out of Stetson University College of Law, when he became an assistant state attorney in the Sixth Judicial Circuit of Pinellas and Pasco counties.
While still a law student, at a Hillsborough County Bar Foundation Law & Liberty Dinner, he had a chance to talk to Bob Woodward, The Washington Post’s famous investigative reporter who won a 1973 Pulitzer, along with Carl Bernstein, for their stories about the Watergate scandal.
Sprowls told Woodward he was trying to decide whether to go into private practice or become a prosecutor.
“Bob Woodward said something that stuck with me. He said being a prosecutor is great training for life,” Sprowls recalled.
“He was right. You have to make decisions as a very young professional that have a huge impact on people’s lives. You have to make heavy decisions, as you try to figure out what to do to have justice done in a case. It’s balancing the books. A wrong was done, and you have to try to right that wrong.”
One high-profile case he prosecuted was a revived cold case ending in the 2013 conviction of William Hurst for the 1982 murder of his wife, Amy Rose Hurst, found dumped in the Gulf of Mexico.
He also served as director of the Sixth Judicial Circuit’s Veterans Treatment Court and championed pro bono legal clinics for vets.
“Mr. [State Attorney Bernie] McCabe and I created that court. I had read an article about a veterans’ court out of Buffalo, and Mr. McCabe and I got together and structured that court. The idea was that so many young people were coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, who had never been in trouble before, but were committing crimes. They were coming back with scars that might not be visible. It could have been the result of injury or use of opiates. The idea of the court was to get individuals who had served our country back on the right track.”
Sprowls said the Sixth Circuit Veterans Treatment Court started with people charged with misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies, and was one of the first veterans’ specialty courts in the state.
“At the time, we were stepping out on a ledge. What we found with service members, while it was a lot like the drug court model, vets require peer-to-peer interactions with people who understand what they’ve gone through serving in the military.”
While he called being a prosecutor “a wonderful job,” Sprowls said being in court day in and day out brought him “as close as you could get to right a wrong, but it was at the end of the line. . . .
“The victim was already hurt. You can’t go back and rewind the clock. This defendant was trapped in a school of failing students. I can’t go back and fix that. I can’t convince that person not to be a criminal and get on the path to prosperity.”
As much as he loved being in the courtroom, Sprowls said, he realized he could do more in the hallways of the Florida Legislature to help Floridians.
He’s most proud of one of the first bills he filed that allows parents to send their kids to any school in the district as long as there is room.
“They shouldn’t be trapped by the neighborhood they grew up in. That shouldn’t trap someone from getting a world-class education,” Sprowls said.
He’s also proud that last session the Legislature passed the School of Hope bill that supports for-profit charter schools as an option for children attending poorly performing public schools.
“I truly believe those kinds of legislation change lives,” he said.
Another proposed bill he supported did not pass last session and is opposed by The Florida Bar: term limits for appellate judges.
“I’m not sure if it will come up again, but I voted for it several times,” Sprowls said. “I voted for it because I believe in term limits. I believe term limits have a positive effect on government. Anytime you tell someone their service is valuable, but limited, you have the best opportunity to get the best out of people.”
He understands the argument against term limits for judges, that it would adversely affect the independence of the judiciary.
To that, Sprowls said, “Each branch is separate and independent. I don’t believe because we are term-limited in the Legislature that we are less independent than the judiciary. In my view, the issue is: What is the best government we can provide for Floridians? I think term limits are healthy for the legislative branch, the executive branch, and I would think they are healthy for the judicial branch, with appellate judges.”
One of the issues he plans to explore and prioritize as chair of the Judiciary Committee is “looking at the integrity of the criminal judicial system and do a better job of the collection of data and reporting that data.”
Sprowls said he wants more uniformity and transparency in how criminal justice data is collected, analyzed, and reported so there can be a better evaluation of failures and successes.
He wants the information to be easily searchable and available to everyone in the system, from state attorneys to public defenders to judges to legislators, as well as the public.
That data, he said, would include sentencing, pleas, trials, and conviction rates. Asked who would be in charge of collecting, analyzing, and reporting the data, Sprowls said, “We will deal with it as we approach the session. You will see the conversation. We need to lead on the issue and make sure it’s all available.”
Last year, Sprowls joined Buchannan, Ingersoll & Rooney in Tampa, as of counsel, practicing business litigation.
He is married to Shannon Long Sprowls of Orlando, and they have two children, Prescott and Conrad.