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Wide-ranging, but different, criminal justice reform measures moving in both chambers

Senior Editor Top Stories

Combining everything from increasing the amount necessary for a felony theft charge to reducing direct filing of juveniles in adult criminal court to helping inmates find jobs after leaving prison was wrapped up in a giant criminal justice reform bill that was introduced and passed in the Florida House Judiciary Committee on April 9.

A week later, the Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Subcommittee approved its own version that in some ways went beyond the House measure. Committee Chair Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, had delayed consideration of two criminal justice reform bills on April 9 saying the upper chamber wanted to see what happened with the House.

“Our goal is nothing less than to have the best criminal justice system in the nation here in Florida,” said Rep. Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, chair of the House Judiciary Committee and who assembled and shepherded the omnibus bill through the committee. “We have a good one, we’re proud of the fact that we have a 50-year low in our crime rate.. . . This bill does nothing to take away the tools that have been put in place to keep Florida safe. It also addresses the needs of crime victims in a significant way. It improves on the rule of law by eliminating arbitrary [juvenile] mandatory direct file requirements. It looks at proportionality and tries to get to just the right spot with respect to punishment.. . .

“The most exciting part of this bill, I think, is about opportunity. If you have paid your debt to society, you’ve completed your terms of sentence, you’ve returned home, you are greeted with the challenges of trying to find a job. If you have a felony conviction, it’s very, very difficult. We have to get to a point where we acknowledge if you have paid your debt to society, it’s paid.”

Renner said the omnibus bill incorporated several other pending bills and ideas from both parties and both legislative chambers in an attempt to provide one main vehicle for criminal justice reform initiatives.

Likewise, Brandes said the Senate version, which ran more than 360 pages, incorporated several other Senate and House bills, including raising the threshold for felony theft that the committee had approved the previous week.

Unlike the House bill, the Senate package did reduce or eliminate some mandatory minimum sentences and also made retroactive a previous bill from the Legislature reducing the penalty for aggravated assault with a firearm from 20 to five years. That was intended to address people who had fired warning shots and then faced a mandatory 20-year sentence under the state’s 10-20-Life gun law.

It also reduced, unlike the House bill, the amount to time inmates convicted on nonviolent crimes must serve before being eligible for parole from 85 to 65 percent of the sentence.

The 259-page HB 7125 addresses a variety of issues including:

• Raising the felony threshold for grand theft from $300 to $1,000.

• Repealing mandatory direct file for juvenile defenders and revising juvenile offender sentencing eligibility, including allowing those who commit offenses when under 21 to be sentenced under more lenient guidelines. Currently, they are sentenced as adults if they are over 21 when sentenced, even if they were under 21 when the offense occurred.

• Expanding access to therapeutic treatment courts and authorizing circuit courts to create a community court to address certain misdemeanors. The bill also expands eligibility for veterans and drug courts.

• Beefing up Department of Corrections programs to help inmates completing their sentences, boosting training for those in prison, making it easier for those with criminal records to eventually get professional licenses under the jurisdiction of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, and easing requirements to seal criminal records in some cases.

• Requiring clerks of court to hold at least one annual event aimed at helping those with suspended drivers licenses get their licenses back.

• Reducing the infractions, especially those unrelated to driving offenses, that can be used to suspend a drivers license.

• Allowing veterinarians to report suspected incidents of animal abuse.

• Easing some probation violation matters, including providing alternatives to incarceration for “technical” probation violations.

The bill generally won bipartisan praise from committee members.

“We have to be smart about what we’re doing. This bill takes us — in a number of ways — an important step forward,” said Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg.

“The signal we’re going to continue sending is that our criminal justice system is not perfect. The signal we’re going to continue sending is we should never stop pursuing a more perfect application of justice,” said Rep. Jamie Grant, R-Tampa, chair of the Criminal Justice Subcommittee and who also worked on the bill. “The job before us is to figure out how do we hold people accountable for breaking the law. How do we do that in a way that, for example, we don’t end a 16-year-old kid’s track on the way to college because we say this a felony and let that felony follow that kid in a way that fundamentally alters the life of that child.”

The bill ultimately passed 17-0.

Sen. Jeff BrandesBrandes said SB 642 seeks to reduce the prison population and use the savings to better help returning inmates prepare for post-prison life.

“The goal of this bill is to build resources. The goal of this bill is to find the resources and make strategic investments back into our communities, back into our jails, back into our prison systems that focus on what people want is to do, which is be a system that focuses on rehabilitation and corrections,” Brandes said. “This is the first step in turning our department of warehousing back into the Department of Corrections.”

Among its provisions:

• Allowing judges to depart from minimum mandatory sentences in some drug trafficking cases.

• Boosting training, education, and other resources to help released inmates find jobs.

• Raising the felony theft threshold from $300 to $750.

• Limiting the Department of Business and Professional Regulation from considering a felony record more than five years old when processing licensing applications.

• Allowing inmates convicted of nonviolent offenses to be released after serving 65 percent, instead of the current 85 percent, if they have earned the required gain time through good behavior and participation in education and training programs.

• Repealing the required felony conviction for the third offense of driving with a suspended license and instead make it a first-degree misdemeanor. Brandes questioned whether some such offenders should be saddled with a felony record for the rest of their lives for such a driving offense.

• Requiring the Department of Corrections to prepare a statement or racial impact to weigh the effect of changes to the criminal justice system on communities of color. That amendment was proposed by Sen. Randolph Bracy, D-Orlando, and earned praised from Brandes, who noted the harm the federal criminal justice system did by making the penalties for crack cocaine more severe than for powdered cocaine. “The effects of that in the African American community were profound in ways that people who used powdered cocaine did not experience,”

Brandes said. “We should be honest and open about our criminal justice system and this highlights and puts more sunshine in our criminal statutes.”

Brandes said he was working on a provision to allow nonincarceration alternatives for technical probation violations. He also said he wanted to encourage the Department of Corrections to house inmates in prisons near their homes to promote family ties, but said that is extremely difficult because of the disproportionate number of state prisons in the Panhandle.

Brandes’ bill earned bipartisan praise from committee members as it passed 8-0.

“We may disagree on details here and there, but with the amendment and the changes that have been brought forward, this bill moves us to where we should be as a society,” said Sen. Annette Taddeo, D-Miami.

The committee also approved SB 1074, sponsored by Brandes, which creates a conditional sentence for certain mental health and substance abuse officers and that provides for

treatment while in prison and after release.

“This really highlights what we think is an appropriate response to many issues. Our goal is diversion, our goal is to get people back into communities,” Brandes said. “I am a person who does not think prison makes people better. We believe in rehabilitation and this shows our commitment to rehabilitation.”

The two bills next go to the Senate Appropriations Committee. HB 7125 passed the House Appropriations Committee as the Senate panel was considering Brandes’ bills.

“I think everybody is of the opinion, as you saw with a unanimous vote today, that there’s strong bipartisan support for this bill, and that tells you that this is a good place to start,” Renner said after the meeting.

He said there may be room for negotiations with the Senate on raising the felony theft threshold where the House is proposing $1,000 and the Senate $750 but was more cautious about doing away with some mandatory minimum sentences.

“There’s some regulatory offenses out there with minimum mandatories we may look at next year. But when you’re talking about minimum mandatories that may upset a 50-year low in the crime rate, that’s something that I want to talk with our chiefs of police, I want to talk with our folks that are on the street keeping us safe,” Renner said. “I want to make sure that anything we do there is not going to disturb our 50-year low in crime.”

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