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Criminal punishment code review, violent protest legislation likely in coming session

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Rep. Cord Byrd

Rep. Cord Byrd

Cracking down on violent protesters and revisiting perhaps overly harsh sentencing laws and guidelines could be priorities for Florida House and Senate criminal justice committees in the upcoming session.

Rep. Cord Byrd, R-Jacksonville Beach and chair of the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said that panel is still sorting out its priorities for the session, but he expects it will address calls from Gov. Ron DeSantis for tougher punishments for rioters who destroy property, injure others, and block traffic. He also said dealing with the aftermaths of the COVID-19 crisis will occupy lawmakers.

Sen. Jason Pizzo

Sen. Jason Pizzo

Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Miami and chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, said he expects the committee will hear DeSantis’ proposals but that also, “We certainly have to look at really antiquated criminal justice statutes.”

Pizzo said he served on the Criminal Punishment Code Task Force created by the 2019 Legislature that took a top-to-bottom look at criminal statutes and sentencing guidelines. It issued its report last summer, and Pizzo said he hopes his committee will review the findings and recommendations.

The review, Pizzo said, left him with the belief the state’s criminal punishment system is woefully out of date. The task force recommended several changes, including increasing the number of felony levels from three to five and raising the number of sentencing guideline categories from 10 to 16. There are also several other recommendations, including fixing laws that impose two separate minimum mandatory sentences of possession of large amounts of marijuana. (The final report can be found here.)

Part of the problem, he said, is piecemeal amendments to criminal law and sentencing guidelines over the years that led to disproportionate punishments for crimes.

Pizzo is in a rare position, a Democrat who chairs a committee in a Republican-controlled Legislature. But he said that can help bring a perspective to such apparently contradictory things as police reform and DeSantis’ push for tougher laws on violent protesters.

“The new Senate president [Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Spring Hill] made a promise that we should be able to agree on 85% of the issues; it’s whether the fringe far right or far left will preclude you from engaging on the other 15%,” Pizzo said. “I am of the gut feeling that when things are controversial and maybe heated and of great interest, they should be put on the agenda.

“There’s a whole group of people who think it’s wonderful and another whole group who think it’s awful. Agenda this and talk them through. Observe the merits or the lack thereof.”

Pizzo noted that no actual bills have been filed based on the governor’s proposals, made in a September 25 press conference, and that the actual details could substantially differ from the original recommendations.

Following the May 25 death of George Floyd while being arrested by Minneapolis police – which touched off months of protests across the country – there’s room for discussion on both sides, he said.

“I definitely think there needs to be a very serious discussion about policing. I am starkly, definitely not a defund the police guy at all,” said Pizzo, a former 11th Circuit assistant state attorney. “But there wasn’t a single Republican or Democratic House member who didn’t make some public comment about George Floyd. I can’t imagine there shouldn’t be some real discussion about best [police] practices….

“I invite a very strong conversation about people’s positions. I respect anyone who can use science, data, and facts to support their position.”

Byrd said the House committee is still working on its priorities but added, “I think it’s fair to say we’ll be looking at some of the governor’s proposals that came out.” Those include mandatory felony charges for protesters who destroy property, injure others, or block traffic as part of an unpermitted demonstration.

He also said COVID-19 issues will inevitably demand lawmakers’ attention, including how the courts will deal with backlogs.

“We have a constitutional right of access to the courts. Being an attorney, I’m more sensitive to those issues than some of my colleagues,” Byrd said. “I think for most individuals, their number one interaction with government is through the legal system at some level, whether it be a will or criminal involvement or a divorce.…I think it will be paramount that the justice system meets those basic due process needs that the law requires.”

He said that service expectation informs his approach to legislating.

“I’m always concerned, partly with the frustration citizens feel interacting with their government, either the courts or administrative agencies and that whenever the citizen comes into contact with the government, their needs are being met,” Byrd said. “Primarily, it’s holding government responsible to the citizens.”

An extra challenge in preparing for the session is that because of the pandemic, the House will be having fewer pre-session committee meetings (the Senate still has a full schedule). Rather than all committees meeting during committee weeks in January and February, only half the House committees will gather on a given week.

“We’re just at the beginning stages of the new reality of working through truncated committee weeks,” Byrd said. “Everyone is a little behind on what it’s going to look like.”

The Legislature will begin having committee meetings for the 2021 session on January 11 for the Senate and January 13 for the House. The session begins on March 2 and is scheduled to end on April 30.

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