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Florida Campaign for Criminal Justice Reform formed as Legislative Session formally begins

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With numerous criminal justice reform bills already moving through Florida House and Senate committees this year, a nonpartisan coalition called The Florida Campaign for Criminal Justice Reform announced Monday its formation on the eve of the 2017 Legislative Session.

The Florida Campaign for Criminal Justice Reform includes the Southern Poverty Law Center, ACLU of Florida, Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, League of Women Voters, R Street Institute, Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Florida Public Defender Association, Florida Legal Services, Florida Immigrant Coalition, New Florida Majority, Florida Council of Churches, Farmworker Self-Help, Inc., LatinoJustice PRLDEF and Southern Legal Counsel.

“Legislators should take notice when public interest organizations representing an extraordinarily broad ideological spectrum come together to urge long-overdue reforms in our criminal justice system,” said Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. “Reforms are needed in our prison system that is already nearing 100,000 inmates, the 3rd largest inmate population of any prison system in the country.  Our state’s habit of imposing mandatory minimum sentences has loaded up our prisons in a way that threatens the safety of inmates as well as correction officers.  Continuing to use incarceration in Florida prisons as a substitute for drug and mental health treatment is not financially sustainable.”

The coalition listed six separate bills that they are focused on as the session begins, starting out with legislation sponsored by St. Petersburg Republicans Jeff Brandes and Kathleen Peters  (SB 458 and HB 387) that would create a task force to review the state’s criminal justice system and recommend reforms prior to the 2018 Legislative Session. Members would represent elected officials, the judiciary, law enforcement, academia, faith groups, advocacy organizations and formerly incarcerated people.

Other bills the coalition will be following closely this Session:

Children Tried as Adults – Florida prosecutes more children as adults than any other state. CS/SB 192 would grant judges oversight of prosecutor’s “direct-file” discretion, remove certain nonviolent offenses from eligibility for adult charges and retain voting rights for children convicted as adults.

Juvenile Civil Citation – Children without arrest records have more opportunity for education, employment and civic engagement. HB 205 and CS/SB 196 would expand the use of civil citations – instead of arrests – for non-violent, common youth misbehavior.

Adult Civil Citation – Tough-on-crime policies have bloated Florida’s jail and prison populations, locking up many non-violent offenders. HB 367 and SB 448 would give law enforcement officers discretion to issue civil citations to adults committing certain low-level misdemeanors, allowing them to complete diversionary programs and avoid arrest records.

Elderly Release – Many prisoners are elderly, require costly medical care and pose no threat to public safety. HB 535 and SB 606 would lay the groundwork for expanding compassionate release programs.

Sentencing and Offense Parameters – Several proposed bills would change how certain offenses are charged and provide judges more discretion in sentencing. HB 693 and SB 1102 would revise property crime thresholds. SB 608 would alter how certain driving offenses are treated. HB 641 and CS/SB 290 would revise possession of controlled substance offenses; expand eligibility for non-prison sanctions and diversionary programs; allow judges to depart from mandatory minimum sentences for certain non-violent crimes and drug possession offenses, and create a Sentencing Commission to oversee sentencing practices.

Members of the Florida Campaign for Criminal Justice Reform say they will be at the Capitol this Thursday, lobbying legislators to approve these reform measures.

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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