SPLC statement on Florida Senate committee’s passage of criminal justice reform bills

We commend the members of the Florida Senate Criminal Justice Committee for their passage of four bills today that could finally put this state on the path toward meaningful criminal justice reform.

Florida incarcerates nearly 100,000 people, at a cost of more than $2.3 billion each year. As states across our country – including our southern neighbors – have adopted bipartisan reform efforts meant to decrease prison populations, improve public safety, and save taxpayers millions of dollars, our Florida Legislature has failed to keep up. The committee votes today show that Florida has an opportunity to do justice better. It is now up to the rest of our legislators to push these reforms forward, and work to give Floridians the fair criminal justice system they deserve.

SB 482 would make driving with a suspended license for a third time a first-degree misdemeanor. The offense is currently a felony and carries a punishment of up to five years in prison. It costs nearly $20,000 a year to house someone in a Florida prison. That means taxpayers could spend up to $100,000 to incarcerate a person for driving without a license. This legislation would still hold people accountable with misdemeanor sanctions, but could save taxpayers millions of dollars by keeping people out of state prison for a fairly insignificant offense.

SB 644 would make it mandatory for law enforcement officers to issue a civil citation for a child’s first offense. While Florida has seen an increase in utilization of juvenile civil citations, programs still vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. A statewide mandate would provide a second chance for all of our youth to learn from their mistakes, and stay out of the criminal justice system.

SB 602 and SB 694 would create a safety valve for mandatory minimum sentencing, a practice that has caused Florida to over-incarcerate people who have been charged with low-level and often first-time offenses, costing taxpayers millions of dollars, but failing to reduce crime. Two-thirds of Floridians believe judges should have the discretion to depart from these mandatory sentencing laws under certain circumstances, and these bills do just that.

The SPLC is a member of the Florida Campaign for Criminal Justice Reform, a nonpartisan coalition of organizations that work together against the over-criminalization and over-incarceration of Floridians.