Florida lawmakers this year passed a criminal justice reform package. But advocates and researchers doubt it will have a real impact on the state’s justice system.
The real meat of the reform was stripped out of the bill (HB 7125). Rather than ending mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug crimes, it ends just one – for selling improperly labeled horse meat for human consumption.
“We were asked, actually, to look at the data to see if there was anybody in prison on that charge, that offense," said Len Engel, policy and campaigns director for the Crime and Justice Institute. "And, not surprisingly, no one is incarcerated for improperly selling horse meat.”
A staff analysis of the bill says the last U.S. horse slaughter house closed in 2007.
The measure also doesn’t give judges more discretion in sentencing nonviolent, first time offenders. State economists estimate ending mandatory minimums could’ve saved Florida as much as $860 million.
A recent study by the Crime and Justice Institute found people are being sentenced to prison even when other options, such as parole or fines, are recommended instead.
“It’s really hard to say that the steps that were taken this year could be really considered criminal justice reform,” Engel said.
Yet, as the House teed up to pass the bill, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle praised their efforts at overhauling the state’s criminal justice system.
Some, including Rep. Anna Eskamani (D-Orlando) and Rep. Ben Diamond (D-St. Petersburg), said they hope for more robust reforms in future years.
The measure raises the felony theft threshold for the first time in more than 30 years, it ends driver’s license suspensions for non-driving offenses and it creates a task force to study the state’s sentencing guidelines.
“Members we talked about principles and no matter what we do, we always ground it in universal principles, and we’ve done that," said Rep. Paul Renner (R- Palm Coast), the House's sponsor. "We also looked at proportionality – whether the punishment fits the crime – and made dramatic steps in that direction. So, for low-level, nonviolent offenders, we’re taking a new approach to make sure they have a new opportunity in life.”
Many criminal justice reform advocates don't see it that way.
“You know, I keep hearing that it’s an incredible turnaround," said Greg Newburn, Florida director for Families Against Mandatory Minimums. "I’m not sure exactly what in the bill is an incredible turnaround from the status quo.”
Newburn said the Senate version of the bill, which included ending many mandatory minimums, would have been a major turnaround.
"But nothing in the bill – certainly nothing in the bill that passed the House – is a marked change from anything in the status quo," continued Newburn. "And I don’t anticipate it will have much of an impact on the system.”
In fact, a provision of the bill could lead to harsher prison sentences for some. Those classified as "prison releasee reoffenders," or people who've committed certain crimes and reoffend within three years, are required to serve a mandatory minimum sentence. The bill would expand that population from people incarcerated in state or federal prisons to include those in county jails.
Sen. Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg), who carried the Senate bill, acknowledges he would have liked to see more done. But he said he hopes this is a first step, and that lawmakers have shown they’re willing to think about criminal justice reform.
"I mean I think there’s a lot more we can do," Brandes admitted, after a pause. "Again, this was really a first step. It really gets the ball rolling. It gets the legislature comfortable with the idea of discussing criminal justice reform. I think that’s incredibly important; it can’t be understated.”
Engel, with the Crime and Justice Institute, agrees with Brandes. He doubts it’ll have a real impact on public safety or the justice system, but said, "I think that’s a positive sign, even if nothing substantive came out of the session. I think there’s a path forward.”
The measure was sent to Gov. Ron DeSantis Wednesday.