Legislature backs modified criminal justice reform package

A bill on its way to Gov. Ron DeSantis changes the criminal justice system — but it’s leaving some advocates disappointed and many lawmakers eager for bolder changes in the future.

The House on Friday backed the proposal (HB 7125) on a 110-0 vote just one day after the Senate approved it 39-1, with only Democrat Randolph Bracy opposed.

DeSantis can veto, sign it, or let it become law without his approval. But throughout the Legislative Session, he has signaled openness to the modest changes included in the proposal.

The lone previous “no” vote in the House was Pensacola Republican Mike Hill, who decried the bill as soft on crime.

The bill would notably raise the felony-theft threshold to $750, up from the $300 floor the Legislature set decades ago and hasn’t changed since despite inflation. It also seeks to reduce occupational licensing barriers for returning citizens and limit the number of offenses that result in a driver’s license suspension.

Should the bill become law, drivers who are caught without a license three or more times will no longer face a felony charge — unless they cause bodily injury, attempt to flee or are driving under the influence.

The proposal also would eliminate the mandatory direct file of juvenile offenders in the adult system.

Bill sponsor Rep. Paul Renner, a Palm Coast Republican, said the changes will maintain the state’s low crime rate. Overall, he suggested the bill provides more options to the incarcerated and formerly imprisoned.

“We have to make sure that we have opportunity as a centerpiece,” Renner said while closing on the bill, “so that inmates having paid their debt or thinking that they’ve paid their debt have actually done so; that they do not continue to have the stigma of a felony that prevents them from getting a job, that prevents them from having an opportunity in their life.”

But the legislation marks a final product of two competing criminal justice reform bills that stood in contrast to each other.

Before the lawmaking process formally began, Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican, had unveiled a more-ambitious reform bill: the Florida First Step Act.

Modeled after the federal First Step Act signed into law by President Donald Trump last year, the bill sought audacious changes to laws that have been faulted for overcrowded prison populations and excessive spending in the Department of Corrections.

That plan had sought to offer judges discretion in sentencing some criminals charged with drug crimes that carry mandatory minimums, but the House refused to take up that language.

It also sought to make some previous sentencing changes retroactive, which would’ve allowed prisoners serving time for mandatory minimums to be eligible for re-sentencing if the Legislature has since amended laws that led to their incarceration. The House refused to acquiesce to that as well.

In April, Brandes tacked onto the “Florida First Step Act” language that would’ve have made some nonviolent offenders eligible to get out of prison earlier.

That part of the proposal would’ve allowed such inmates to pick up more gain time through things like education and incentive programs, allowing them to chip away at their sentence. Specifically, it would’ve lowered the time-served threshold down to 65 percent of a sentence from the current 85 percent threshold. But again, the House refused to consider the language.

Brandes has told reporters that while those three provisions couldn’t make the cut, the sweeping legislation is still a “first step” in the right direction.

“It’s a very substantial criminal justice reform package; one of the largest we’ve seen in decades in the state of Florida,” Brandes said earlier this week.

But not everyone’s happy. Greg Newburn, a policy director with the national criminal justice reform group FAMM, said his organization “is disappointed that lawmakers missed another opportunity to fix real problems in Florida’s criminal justice system.” 

Newburn pointed out that the Republican-led Legislature couldn’t agree to the same provisions — like judicial discretion for mandatory minimums and retroactive sentencing — that Trump backed last year.

In fact, the only mandatory minimum addressed in the bill is the repeal of a sentence for those who unlawfully consume horse meat.

“The Florida Legislature could only find the courage to repeal a mandatory minimum for a crime related to horse meat,” Newburn said. “That’s not reform — it’s a bad joke.” 

Lawmakers who ultimately supported the legislation also suggested there’s more work to be done.

“I do wish that we could’ve done more to decarcerate right now,” said Rep. Anna Eskamani, an Orlando Democrat.

Meanwhile, the Alliance for Safety and Justice, a group that represents crime survivors, cheered the legislation. Among the sweeping proposal is language that triples the time limit for victims to apply for victim compensation.

“Florida lawmakers have just passed the most expansive justice reform bill in 20 years and we celebrate this turning tide,” said Robert Rooks, the group’s vice president. “We support House leadership and Chairman Renner for the continued advancement of important safety reforms that were championed by Florida crime survivors.”

Originally posted on Florida Politics by Danny McAuliffe.