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A Slew Of Criminal Justice Bills Are Teed Up For The 2020 Session: Here's A Look At A Few Of Them

Senator Jeff Brandes chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee
Ryan Dailey
Senator Jeff Brandes chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee
Senator Jeff Brandes chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee
Credit Ryan Dailey / WFSU-FM
Senator Jeff Brandes chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee

A slew of criminal justice reform bills will be up this 2020 legislative session. A number of them will get a hearing during the first week lawmakers return to Tallahassee.

House and Senate criminal justice committees will meet Tuesday and Wednesday.

Up for consideration are a number of proposals that have criminal justice advocates talking. One that will get a hearing in the senate Tuesday would expand criminal record expungement for minors. It’s sponsored by Republican Senator Keith Perry. As it stands, there is a process for expungement of record if a minor completes a diversion program. It’s limited to first-time misdemeanor offenses.

Democratic Senator Jason Pizzo is carrying a bill dealing with expungement of criminal records:

“Senate Bill 684, members, allows for a court-ordered expunction to be granted to an individual whose previous court-ordered expunction was granted prior to the age of 18,” Pizzo said, introducing his bill in committee last month.

It will be up in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, the bill’s second stop.

Senate Criminal Justice Committee chair Jeff Brandes already has bills moving. Five of them were passed by the panel during its meeting in December.

Senate Bill 572 would expand the definition of confinement in the Department of Corrections for gain time purposes. It would include time spent in the department’s care, custody, supervision or control through participation in a program.

“There is currently no data to suggest that $50 and a bus pass is the best way to release an inmate,” Brandes said during the December meeting. “This bill authorizes the Department of Corrections to allow an inmate to participate in a supervised community release program up to 365 days before their technical release date.”

In its first committee stop, the bill was amended by Democratic Sen. Randolph Bracy of Orange County to include a gain time provision. That’s something Brandes advocated for last session: to reduce a state requirement that the incarcerated must serve 85 percent of their sentence, even with time earned, to 65 percent.

“This amendment allows non-violent offenders to earn more incentive gain time for good behavior, diligent work, educational attainment and other constructive programming, by lowering the 85 percent threshold to 65 percent – and for it to be applied retroactively,” Bracy explained. “As our secretary has stated numerous times – our current model is unsustainable, and I believe we have no choice but to lower the threshold for gain time.”

Bracy also has his own stand-alone gain time bill, which is waiting for a hearing.

Greg Newburn is policy director for advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums Florida. He supports Brandes’ measure.

“The 85 percent requirement says they have to be in confinement – this expands what confinement means, so it would allow folks to serve their time in different, more productive ways,” Newburn told WFSU last month.

In the House, Tampa Democratic Representative Dianne Hart is carrying a proposal similar to Bracy’s.

Last April, state estimators said the gain time provision could take more than 9,000 people out of the prison population by 2023-24. Estimators also said it could potentially save state as much as $860 million.

Rep. Hart says those savings are a bonus on top of the problems allowing for additional gain time could alleviate in an ailing prison system.

“Not only do we get people to go home earlier – we also get to save over $800 million over a five-year period. I think it’s critically important that we put those dollars back into our system to educate people and prepare them to go home,” Hart told a Senate panel.

Another Brandes bill that’s cleared its first hurdle in the Senate is one that looks to let elderly inmates out of prison who have served at least 10 years of their sentence. It would apply to inmates at least 70 years old who were not convicted of certain violent and sexual offenses.

Gene Greeson is director for Men of the Word Prison Ministry. He visits incarcerated men, who often times have to live in conditions he describes as being tough on even younger inmates. He described visiting a prison on a particularly cold night, where inmates were sleeping in sub-60 degree weather, indoors.

“If you’ve ever attempted to sleep in a 56-degree room with only your clothes and sheets, you’d know what I’m talking about,” Greeson told lawmakers while speaking on the bill.

He asked lawmakers to consider dropping the age even lower for inmates to qualify.

“In summary I’m asking you to change this bill, to make the age 65 instead of 70,” Greeson said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 15 percent of the country’s prison population in 2016 were 65 years old or older.

Criminal justice bills are still being filed ahead of the Session’s start date. A recent Brandes bill would lessen the mandatory minimum sentences for designated “prison release reoffenders” by about a third.

Under Florida’s prison releasee offender law, a person can be sentenced as such if they commit certain crimes, most of them violent crimes, within three years of being released from a detention facility if their original sentence was a prison sentence.

Copyright 2020 WFSU. To see more, visit WFSU.

Ryan Dailey is a reporter for News Service of Florida. He previously was a reporter/producer for WFSU/Florida Public Radio.