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SPLC Action Fund: Florida Legislature’s criminal justice reform bill is a baby step at best

The Florida Legislature today approved House Bill 7125 as the long-discussed criminal justice reform legislation that will be sent for Gov. Ron DeSantis to sign into law.

The bill, among other things, reduces occupational licensing barriers for people with felony convictions, limits the number of offenses that can result in driver’s license suspension, raises the felony theft threshold from $300 to $750, and eliminates mandatory direct file, which currently requires children to be prosecuted in adult court for certain criminal offenses.

However, the Legislature abandoned a more substantial reform bill – Senate Bill 642 – that would have allowed incarcerated people who have been convicted of nonviolent offenses to be released earlier from prison for good behavior. 

The stronger bill would have allowed incarcerated people convicted of nonviolent offenses to use all earned gain time through good behavior and participation in educational and rehabilitative programs, instead of having their gain time artificially capped. This would have allowed them to reduce their sentences to 65 percent of the time they were originally ordered to serve.

The stronger reform bill also would have required racial impact statements, and would have made recent sentencing reforms retroactive, so that some people could get out of prison immediately and others would have their sentences shortened.

It is good to see some progress on criminal justice reform in Florida this year. But it’s hard not to lament what could have been a better law, had the Legislature followed through on the bill that made it through three committees in the Senate.

Florida was close to enacting more meaningful reforms to address racial disparities in the criminal justice system and artificially long sentences that have bloated our prisons. But legislators left those proposals on the cutting room floor to pass a bill that does only the bare minimum to qualify as “reform.”

Racial impact statements are essential for policymakers to grapple with the deep racial disparities in our jails, courts and prisons. This reform from the Senate bill would have cost little and would have helped policymakers work to eliminate racial disparities that undermine confidence in our justice system.

House Bill 7125, however, gets no one out of prison. In a state that spends $2.7 billion a year to lock up almost 100,000 people, we can’t keep kicking the can down the road on reducing the number of people in prison. Giving incarcerated people a chance to earn gain time when they engage in rehabilitative programs, without an artificial 15 percent cap on the time earned off of their sentences, makes sense.

Most people who are now incarcerated will eventually return home, and we want to give them every possible chance to turn their lives around.

We hope that our Legislature will come back in 2020 ready to pick up the proposals they left behind, and that they will enact comprehensive criminal justice reform.

The SPLC is among the organizations that are involved in the Florida Campaign for Criminal Justice Reform. For a full list of organizations involved in the campaign, click here.