Florida First Step Act clears major hurdle

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (CAPITOL NEWS SERVICE) - A sweeping criminal justice reform package has cleared its second Senate committee Tuesday.

The Florida First Step Act as it’s called would allow for non-violent prisoners to serve only 65% of their sentence if they participate in educational or work-related programs in prison.

The bill increases the felony theft threshold from $300 to $1,000.

It also removes barriers for certain professional licenses for former inmates and allows for judges to divert away from mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug offenses.

Senate sponsor Jeff Brandes says it will help address the growing crisis in Florida’s corrections system.

"We're trying to tell a story with this legislation that we've got to focus on diversion on the front end. We've got to help people transition back into society on the back end, but in order to do that, we've got to fix the middle. And that middle is looking at the criminal punishment code, looking at downward departures, allowing judges to actually be judges and not simply tabulators,” said Brandes. "This really is focusing on a variety of different areas that we think are problematic in the existing system and trying to build bold reforms to move forward.”

The House and Senate bills have some key differences, but Brandes says he’s confident some version of the legislation will pass this year.