Legislature did little on criminal justice reform in 2021

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In the 2021 legislative session dozens of bills were introduced that would have done everything from shortening the sentences of inmates with good behavior to creating a registry of police misconduct. 

But barely anything passed. And state lawmakers were shocked when Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed a bill passed with bipartisan support that would have expunged the records of minors who complete behavioral programs. 

State Rep. Diane Hart, who sponsored numerous reform bills in the last session and sits on the state House’s Criminal Justice & Public Safety Subcommittee, and Hillsborough County Public Defender Julianne Holt discussed the issues July 14 on WMNF’s MidPoint. The entire program is available here.

Speaking at a forum hosted July 8 by the Institute for Strategic Policy Solutions at St. Pete College, State Sen. Darryl Rouson, a Democrat from St. Petersburg, said this: 

“This was a tough year for criminal justice reform in the legislature. It should have been an easy year with all that has happened because of the George Floyd murder, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor,  all of those things going on nationally and in our own state. But it was still a difficult year. It was the fight of the conservatives versus those who want more out of government.

At that same forum, Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes noted that one of the arguments against major reform is that crime rates are at a 50-year low. But, he said, that doesn’t mean the system is working. 

“Go look at how many states are at a 50-year crime low. Most of them,” he said. “Most of them have policies that are radically different than Florida. Many of them have much better outcomes than Florida has.” 

Brandes said the goal should be to improve outcomes by putting resources in the right place. 

“We have a huge mental health problem,” he said. “Massive. The prison system is the largest provider of mental health care in Florida. We have a huge problem with inmate idleness. We have a huge problem with lack of judicial discretion. We have a huge problem with over-sentencing. And we have a massive problem in that when people get released, there’s nothing for them. We mark them with a scarlet letter for life. We make them disclose their felony status and that affects their housing and their job prospects and everything else,” he said. “We have to fundamentally reform the system. It isn’t just one thing here and one thing there. But also we have to recognize we did not get here overnight. This took decades. It’s going to take decades on the way out.” 

Both Brandes and Rouson have been leaders in criminal justice reform for Florida. 

“It was very sad in the House. Even though there was lots of criminal justice reform activity happening in the Senate, in the house … my colleagues on the Republican side had very little appetite for criminal justice reform,” Rep. Hart said on MidPoint. “It was a very difficult session knowing what’s happening in our prison system.” 

Hart noted that people are being incarcerated with no chance for early release even if they are model inmates, there are no meaningful rehabilitation programs even for young people committing first offenses, and people with nonviolent offenses. 

“I would like it if we could have at least  approached our gain time bill which would have saved us about $800 million over the next five years, educated our inmates and prepared them to go home. We did none of that. Those were just two that I really would have liked to see some movement on,” she said. 

Rep. Hart said she will bring those bills back next year.