Protests spark new hope for criminal justice reform

Published: Jun. 8, 2020 at 10:47 PM CDT
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A handful of Florida lawmakers have been pushing for criminal justice reform for years in the state Legislature, but their bills seldom make it far in the process.

However, the immense protests across the state and nation over the death of George Floyd have reformers hopeful the 2021 Legislative Session will be different.

Mass protests for more than a week straight across the state and country has put a spotlight on the public's frustration with the criminal justice system.

“I'm hoping that my counterparts across the isle really get the message,” said State Representative Dianne Hart.

Hart and the Florida Black Caucus have put together seven pieces of legislation aimed at greater accountability and punishment for bad actors in the justice system.

“At a time like this, everybody should be held accountable,” said Hart.

State Senator Jeff Brandes has spent years pushing for reforms.

“It's not just law enforcement, it's the court system itself, and then it's obviously the prison system,” said Brandes.

He hopes the Legislature can allocate more dollars to officer training.

“But in order to free up resources to do that we need to look at the broader criminal justice system, including the prison system, and figuring out what's going to give us the best results,” said Brandes.

Heavy opposition from law enforcement and prosecutors have largely quashed even modest attempts at reform in years past.

It’s not yet clear what reforms they may be willing to stomach in light of the protests.

But Representative Byron Donalds believes many of the reforms need to be tackled at the local level.

"The actual policies and protocols that they use are part of their training, and that's stuff that the Legislature doesn't typically write,” said Donalds.

The incoming House and Senate leadership haven’t spoken to reforms directly.

Instead, their social media accounts have largely focused on their displeasure with rioting that has occurred.

Shy of a special session, which one state senator has called for, lawmakers won’t be back in the Capitol until November.

In the meantime, lawmakers we spoke with are urging citizens to call their elected officials and advocate for criminal justice reform.