Criminal Justice Reform Clears Florida House

Apr 29, 2019

The Florida House has approved a major criminal justice reform package.
Credit Matthew Ansley / Unsplash

The Florida House passed a comprehensive criminal justice reform package Monday. But major differences still exist between the Senate and House versions.

The plan is geared toward easing an overcrowded prison system and helping inmates transition back into society. It’s a major reversal for a body that previously prided itself on its ‘tough on crime’ approach.

“Members, when I came into this chamber in 2017, I didn’t really anticipate we would get this far; as far as we are here in the Florida House today," said Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Naples). "And it is to be commended.” 

The measure, heralded by a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers, cleared by a vote of 112-1. Rep. Mike Hill (R-Pensacola) was the lone no vote. He called the bill soft on crime.

“Leniency on crime should not be tagged to inflation," Hill said, "but instead something that is more solid. And that would be morality.”

Yet, its passage sets up a standoff between the House (HB 7125) and Senate (SB 642). The two bills, dubbed the “Florida First Step Act,” remain divided on a number of issues. Sen. Jeff Brandes (R-Tampa) is carrying the Senate version, and Rep. Paul Renner (R-Palm Coast) is sponsoring the House's.

The House’s raises the threshold for felony theft from $300, where it was set in 1986, to $1,000. The Senate’s caps it at $750.

Donalds for the past two years has pushed for raising the threshold.

"We all know theft is wrong – we all know that," Donalds said. "The question is, at what point are you going to be branded a felon for the rest of your life? Because once you’re a felon in our system, there’s no coming back from that.” 

Meanwhile, the Senate's version seeks to ease mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug charges. It would also give judges more discretion when sentencing crimes that carry mandatory minimums. The House bill ends just one mandatory minimum: selling improperly-labeled horse meat for human consumption.

Another sticking point deals with what’s called “gain time,” or time off for good behavior. Current law, known as truth in sentencing, requires prisoners to serve at least 85% of their sentence. It’s the toughest in the nation. The Senate’s bill wants to retroactively relax that provision, lowering it to just 65% for first time, nonviolent offenders.

“I think the addition of the 65% gain time and piercing the 85% arbitrary threshold, I think it’s a huge reform," Brandes said. "Especially allowing for individuals who have committed themselves, while incarcerate, to doing the right things.”

The House package doesn't address gain time.

But state economists estimate it could free 7,600 people in its first year and more than 9,000 by 2024. What’s more, it could save the state as much as $860 million. 

The House bill has been sent to the Senate. The Senate’s version has been on hold for the past week. After the bill was postponed again Monday, Senate President Bill Galvano signaled talks are still ongoing between the two chambers.

“I believe there’s still some negotiation going on between the House and Senate," Galvano said. "Chair Brandes is working towards a landing on that bill, so that’s probably a chairman decision.”

The Senate bill is scheduled to be taken up again on Tuesday.