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Criminal justice reform may be coming in 2019

(WAGM)
Published: Jan. 31, 2019 at 4:46 PM CST
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Florida’s criminal justice system might see some major changes this legislative session. Some top Florida officials have expressed support for some reforms that have been shot down in years past.

State Senator Jeff Brandes says the time for criminal justice reform in Florida is now.

“As bad as the criminal justice system and the prison system was last year, it's worse this year as far as funding, budget, and personnel,” said Brandes.

Part of Brandes' and other criminal justice reformers’ approach to reducing the strain on the system, is to reduce sentences for certain low-level crimes and find alternatives to prison for some offenders.

“Are people better served in community supervision, are people better served in mental health and substance abuse treatment programs?” said Chelsea Murphy with Right on Crime.

Many bills sponsored by Brandes in years past have failed to cross the finish line. One example: raising the felony theft threshold from $300 to $1,500, but that proposal now has support from Governor Ron DeSantis.

“I don't want some 15-year-old kid to do something stupid, but doesn't mean he's a bad kid, and then end up with a felony because he stole a bicycle or something that cost $305,” said DeSantis.

Florida’s Attorney General Ashely Moody also says the state needs to improve its criminal justice system. Her focus is primarily on mental health.

That’s also what some other criminal justice groups say the state should really focus on.

“I think that's where the reformers are missing it. They're trying to play around on the sentencing stuff,” said Barney Bishop with Florida Smart Justice Alliance. "Don't do that. The core problem is two issues: substance abuse and mental health.”

Some of Brandes’ other proposed reforms include giving judges discretion in mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, allowing courts the option to set no bail for low flight risk offenders who can’t afford to pay and allowing prisoners who enroll in educational programs to have up to 60 days removed from their sentence.

With the passage of Amendment 11 in November, lawmakers will now have the option of applying sentencing changes retroactively, which means new laws could immediately impact those behind bars, not just future convictions.