Several Criminal And Juvenile Justice Reforms Get Closer To Becoming Reality

Apr 29, 2014

Credit MGN Online

In the last several days, a number of bills aimed at helping Florida’s criminal justice and juvenile justice systems have passed in either chamber of the state Legislature. They range from a measure to prevent inmate escapes to another that aims to revamp the juvenile justice system.

Bill Addressing Inmate Escapes

Making sure prison release orders are properly verified is the goal of bill authored by Sen. Greg Evers (R-Baker) in his capacity as chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.

“Last year, we had a couple of inmates that escaped because of some fraudulent papers,” said Evers. “What this would do is require the Florida Department of Corrections to verify and authenticate the signature and release from the actual judge and the Clerk of Court prior to any release dates.”

Last August and September, two convicted killers—Joseph Jenkins and Charles Walker—escaped from Franklin County prison, using forged documents that appeared to have a judge’s signature and were filed through the Orange County clerk of courts. The escaped prisoners were arrested in mid-October in Panama City, and a later probe showed that several other inmates had also tried similar escape attempts. But, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement is still looking into how the fake documents got to the Clerk’s office.

Still, Sen. Darren Soto (D-Orlando) says the measure helps to put the people who he represents’ minds at ease.

“Thank you, Senator Evers for helping make our communities safer. I can’t tell you how many calls I got that day in Orlando when two folks that were coming back to Orlando—escapees from our state prison that hadn’t had escapes in years,” said Soto. “So, hopefully, we’ll keep the doors shut this time.”

The Senate unanimously passed the measure Tuesday and sent the measure to the House.

Inmate Re-entry Bill

The Senate also recently passed a measure with a near unanimous vote that is a priority for the Florida Department of Corrections and seeks to make life easier for former inmates when they’re released from prison.

“[The bill] requires the Department of Corrections to work with the Department of Health and the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles to ensure that every Florida-born inmate who leaves prison has a state identification card, a replacement identification card or replacement driver’s license, and a certified copy of their birth certificate at no cost to the inmate,” said Sen. David Simmons (R-Altamonte Springs), the bill's Senate sponsor.

Getting a state-issued ID is one of the biggest obstacles ex-inmates face upon their release from prison. And, House sponsor Rep. Dennis Baxley (R-Ocala) says it’s time to help these former inmates get a second chance.

“If you give people a photo ID, we know who they are. They can apply for a job, and they can open a bank account and re-enter life,” said Baxley, last month. We need to get that tool in their hand before they go to transition programs so they can go to transition programs so they can go to work and re-enter life. This is a simple tool and the core of this bill.”

His measure already passed the House last month. After the Senate’s recent passage of the bill, the measure is heading back to the House with one new change. The measure—that’s expected to cost thousands of dollars—now includes more money to help pay for mobile units for DMV officials to help process the anticipated increase in state-issued IDs.

Juvenile Justice Reform Bill

Meanwhile, a measure that’s now headed to the Governor is aimed at reforming Florida’s juvenile justice system. The bill by Sen. Rob Bradley (R-Fleming Island) rewrites the state law that governs Florida’s juvenile justice system and places more of an emphasis on juvenile delinquents.

“It codifies best practices that the DJJ has undertaken in recent years and reflects the department’s goals to provide the right services to youth at the right time in the right way in order to maximize public safety and be proper stewards of taxpayer dollars,” said Bradley.

One bill provision allows youth who have multiple arrests within a short timeframe to stay in secure detention, regardless of the offense. It also makes it a third degree felony for a Department of Juvenile Justice employee to willfully neglect a juvenile offender in their care. That’s in part because of an offender who died in 2011 from a cerebral hemorrhage in a youth detention facility. Employees there failed to call for help for about six hours, after he complained he wasn’t feeling well.

While she applauds the outlined reforms so far, Sen. Arthenia Joyner (D-Tampa) says she hopes in the future lawmakers can do more for these juvenile offenders.

Some of Joyner’s suggestions came from a coalition of groups, which includes the James Madison Institute, the Children’s Campaign, the FSU Project on Accountable Justice, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and Voices for Children. Their goal is to make sure juveniles aren’t prosecuted within the adult criminal justice system.

“There was considerable press about juveniles that were being housed in county jails and they were subject to the standards used in jails, as opposed to the ones in juvenile detention facilities,” said Joyner, speaking about an amendment she'd offered and later withdrew.

Still, the measure not only passed unanimously in the Senate, it also gained a unanimous vote in the House.

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.