TALLAHASSEE — Republicans and Democrats joined in the Florida Legislature last week to advance a range of criminal justice reform bills, including legislation that would reduce the number of offenders sent to state prisons and a bill increasing the dollar threshold for felony property theft.

The bills are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to criminal justice reform proposals floating around the Legislature this year, and nearly all of them have some level of bipartisan support.

As politics becomes ever more polarized, there are still a few policy areas where many Republicans and Democrats agree. Criminal justice reform is one of the most significant.

Florida Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, has made juvenile justice issues a top priority. Citing his own youthful indiscretions, he has talked about not “criminalizing youth” and creating permanent records that could haunt people for years. He championed a bill mandating the use of civil citations for certain juvenile offenses.

Yet Negron was stifled on the issue last year, and as the state’s 2018 legislative session kicks off, advocates of criminal justice reform face significant legislative roadblocks.

The biggest obstacles are in the Florida House, where Speaker Richard Corcoran is considering a run for governor and Rep. Ross Spano, chairman of the Criminal Justice Subcommittee, is running for attorney general. Both are Republicans, and any legislation that could be construed as being soft on crime could be a liability in a Republican primary.

The House also has generally taken a more conservative approach to criminal justice issues.

“Some folks would like to see wholesale, far-reaching criminal justice reform changes,” Spano said. “I don’t think the House is in that position.”

Regardless, reform advocates are pushing ahead thanks to strong bipartisan support in the Senate. They are hopeful some bills will gain traction in the House or become part of the late session horse trading between the two chambers.

 

Targeted proposals

Spano said the House is open to more targeted proposals. His counterpart in the Senate said he plans to advance a range of reform bills in the hopes that some gain momentum in the House.

“My goal is to pass as many smart, evidenced-based reforms as possible and then negotiate with the House,” said Sen. Randolph Bracy, an Orlando Democrat who chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.

Bracy has long been a fervent advocate of criminal justice reform. Negron’s decision to make Bracy the chair of a key committee handling the issue signaled the Senate president’s commitment to reform.

But despite Bracy’s efforts, the House showed limited interest in tackling the issue last year. The juvenile justice civil citation bill passed the Senate but House leaders balked at mandating civil citations for certain first-time misdemeanor crimes, preferring to preserve law enforcement discretion to make arrests.

The same dispute threatens to derail the legislation again this year, but Spano said he wants to continue the conversation.

“That’s one of the things we’re going to be discussing,” he said. “It’s not over by any stretch of the imagination. It’s on the table.”

Some law enforcement agencies don’t even have civil citation programs. Others use the citations on a limited basis.

From December 2016 through November 2017, juveniles who were eligible for civil citations in Florida received them 57 percent of the time, according to Florida Department of Juvenile Justice statistics. Sarasota County law enforcement issued the citations 66 percent of the time, while Manatee County issued them 72 percent of the time.

 

Felony threshold

Scott McCoy, who advocates for criminal justice reforms on behalf of the Southern Poverty Law Center, said he hopes lawmakers can reach a compromise on the bill. One possibility: Preserving the discretion to arrest but making civil citations the default penalty and requiring officers to obtain permission from a supervisor to make an arrest.

“We generally are interested in seeing the utilization of civil citations increase for juveniles and also expanded to adults,” McCoy said. “How you go about doing that, there are lots of opinions.”

One of the few reform bills advancing in both the House and Senate with similar language is the legislation increasing the dollar threshold for what constitutes felony theft. Florida’s current threshold of $300 is among the lowest in the nation. Most states set the threshold at $1,000 or higher.

The theft bill goes to the Senate Judiciary Committee next. Sen. Greg Steube, a conservative Sarasota Republican who chairs Judiciary, said he doesn’t “have a problem” with the legislation.

“I mean, we haven’t changed that in, I don’t know, 20, 30 years,” Steube said of the theft threshold, which can determine whether someone has to serve jail time.

Lawmakers have proposed many other reform ideas, including bills creating “safety valves” allowing judges to depart from mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug crimes and legislation that would force the state to better track sentencing data in order to identify racial disparities in punishments.

“I don’t say we’d outright object — potentially — to judges having the opportunity to maybe come down off a mandatory minimum but it’s got to be the right circumstance,” Spano said.

Some political observers say they’d be surprised if the House does much in the way of criminal justice reform this year. Barney Bishop, who runs the conservative-leaning Florida Smart Justice Alliance, said many of the Senate proposals will be dead on arrival in the House.

“Most everything over here will be DOA over there,” Bishop said after the Senate Criminal Justice Committee meeting last week. “These are too liberal of ideas that don’t protect public safety. The House is very law enforcement protective.”

Negron said he’s not done pushing for criminal justice reforms, especially those benefiting juveniles.

“I’m optimistic,” he said. “I think that there’s a coalition of groups that don’t view this as being soft on crime at all, that view this as being fair to young people and giving them a second chance.”