As races for statewide office heat up, two candidates have found common ground on criminal justice reform. Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Chris King was joined this week by fellow Dem and attorney general candidate Sean Shaw in kicking off a tour to roll out King’s platform.
King recently launched the 10-day state tour, dubbed “Turning the Tide,” that he calls a ‘package of big ideas’ for transforming criminal justice. Things like prison privatization and the death penalty are in his crosshairs as he’s traveling the state calling for their elimination.
King says in Pinellas County, where he kicked off the tour, African Americans are six times more likely to be arrested for marijuana. He wants to change that.
“I called for the legalization of marijuana. After really studying marijuana laws from a criminal justice perspective, it became of great concern to me,” King said.
King is not the only Democrat in the gubernatorial race who wants to legalize recreational marijuana. Miami Beach Mayor Phillip Levine and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum have called for the same thing. But, King does feel his position on the death penalty sets him apart.
“My position on the death penalty is totally ahead of the pack,” King said. “On the Republican side, pretty much everybody on the republican side supports the death penalty. And on the Democratic side, everybody is a little bit squishy on the policy, but is not suggesting they would do anything to change it.”
The majority of King’s criminal justice platform is an effort to reverse what he feels is the state’s biggest ailment: Mass incarceration.
“My vision would be to reduce mass incarceration of non-violent offenders by fifty percent over the next ten years, 25 percent over the next five years. And reallocate the resources,” King said.
Given King’s business background, he estimated the economic payoff of reducing prison population would be huge.
“We may experience savings, just from that alone, of upwards of $500 million a year,” King said.
Democratic Rep. Sean Shaw was with King for his tour’s kickoff. He is in a crowded race for Attorney General, with a primary opponent and three republicans running against him. Shaw sees the office he’s vying for as a way to bring meaningful reform without having to wait for his current peers in the legislature.
“It was terribly frustrating, prior to Session starting, we had these bipartisan press conferences and agreements that we were going to do criminal justice reform,” Shaw said during a stop in Tallahassee this week. “I mean these were Democrats and Republicans – everyone understood we needed to tackle criminal justice reform. And for nothing to happen other than a study, is terribly disappointing, but it is Tallahassee as usual unfortunately.”
Shaw is referring to a measure passed during this past Session ordering courts, prisons and other justice system entities to collect data and in turn use it to craft policy. But Shaw sees the move as redundant, and asserts existing data is already crystal clear. Particularly on things like marijuana arrests.
“A lot of our resources are spent dealing with arresting and detention of individuals who are in there for drug possession, and I think we need to reform not only how we deal with the legalization of marijuana, but our sentencing reform, holistically,” Shaw said.
Shaw’s eagerness to bring reform has him questioning the State’s current Attorney General, Pam Bondi, who recently filed a lawsuit against opioid manufacturers.
“The opioid crisis for example, there was a press conference yesterday where the Attorney General said she was putting together a team to sue pharmaceutical companies – she’s been in office eight years,” Shaw said. “That should have been done a long, long time ago.”
Whether King will be the state’s next governor or Shaw will be a member of his cabinet is too early to tell. But King certainly hopes to see both happen.
“Representative Shaw, who was with me on my first day, and then a day later I think came out and supported some of the very same policies that we kicked off. Which would certainly make it very easy to work together in Tallahassee,” King said.
In the most recent round of campaign fundraising, Florida Politics is reporting Shaw has significantly outpaced his primary opponent and has more than $300,000 in hand, but a GOP candidate is leading in fundraising overall.
The Tampa Bay Times reports of King’s more than $500,000 dollars raised in April, about $400,000 was out of pocket.