As this is being written, the 2017 session is in the books. It will likely be remembered primarily for the high-profile issues that went unaddressed and the often intense intra-party quarrels. Bills to implement medical marijuana and approve a gambling compact potentially worth hundreds of millions to the state were among the casualties.
As it relates to criminal justice reform, the session was at best a mixed bag. A Senate priority to require civil citations for certain juveniles charged with misdemeanors failed to pass. Legislation that would have significantly curtailed prosecutorial discretion to try juveniles as adults failed along with a fallback proposal to impose reporting requirements on the practice. A bill that would expand opportunities for early release of elderly and incapacitated inmates never got a committee hearing in the House. A bill that would reform minimum mandatory provisions for certain drug offenders got a very favorable hearing in Senate committee and then went nowhere. Language that would establish a criminal justice reform task force died as well. New mandatory minimum provisions related to fentanyl were passed despite opposition and a no vote by the Senate president.
Among bills that passed, legislation that shifts the burden of proof from the defense to the prosecution in so-called ‘Stand Your Ground’ cases passed. The Department of Corrections’ priority legislation passed clean despite the Senate sponsor’s attempt to attach provisions related to release of elderly and incapacitated inmates at several stops and right before final passage. A bill establishing autism training for law enforcement officers passed as did legislation aimed at strengthening services and protections provided to victims of human trafficking.
Overall, the results of the session mean that Florida will arguably continue to lag many of its southern peers in adopting criminal justice reforms. While the strength of the law enforcement community is undeniable, it is the lack of consensus among the state’s political leadership that is the main reason that progress has come slowly. States that have been successful, like Georgia and Texas, had strong leadership and buy-in from both the Executive and Legislative branches. Without consensus, there is no coherent vision. There will be successes, but they will be random. The disparate message coming from the advocacy community makes the task of achieving consensus that much more difficult.
On the bright side, we are at least having a serious public discussion of ideas that were once practically taboo in the Florida Capitol. While the effort to establish a joint House/Senate criminal justice reform task force failed, Senate leadership has indicated that this topic will continue to be examined on the Senate side. House Speaker Richard Corcoran also has publicly stated that he would like to see the state prison population reduced. The Department of Corrections has indicated its support for certain strategies, such as alternative sanctions for certain drug offenders and early release for elderly and incapacitated inmates, that would further reduce the inmate population. There have been random successes and Florida has been a leader in establishing so-called problem solving courts that provide alternatives to incarceration for offenders with addiction and mental health issues.
Clearly there are opportunities and much room for future improvement. The challenge will, as always, lie in sorting out the details. This will not happen without all parties at the table communicating openly. Those of us with an interest in moving this discussion forward will be well served to come together, cast aside previous divisions and work to offer a comprehensive and realistic vision to our state’s leadership. The Florida Center to Advance Justice stands willing and able to work toward this goal.