The Center Square: “Democrats call on GOP legislative leaders to give criminal justice reform bills review time during session”

If Florida Republicans don’t give Democrat-sponsored “gain time” bills any time for discussion and debate during the upcoming legislative session, they’ll have to explain to voters in November 2020 why they left $1 billion “on the table.”

House Democratic Leader Rep. Kionne McGhee, D-Miami, Rep. Dianne Hart, D-Tampa and Sen. Randolph Bracy, D-Orlando, during a Tuesday press conference in Tallahassee called on Republicans to set aside partisan divides to seriously evaluate criminal justice reform proposals being pre-filed for the 2020 session, which begins Jan. 14.

Chief among them is a House-Senate companion bill – House Bill 189, filed by Hart and McGhee, and Senate Bill 394, filed by Bracy – that would allow first-time non-violent offenders to get out of prison after serving 65 percent of their sentences, instead of the 85 percent now mandated by state law.

Under the bills, murderers and other violent offenders would still have to serve 85 percent of their time before being eligible for early release.

HB 189, filed by Hart and McGhee on Sept. 17, has five Democratic co-sponsors and has been referred to the House Criminal Justice and Justice Appropriations subcommittees and the House Judiciary Committee.

SB 394, filed by Bracy on Sept. 27, has three Democratic co-sponsors and has been referred to the Senate Criminal Justice Appropriations Subcommittee and the Senate Appropriations and Criminal Justice committees.

Bracy said Tuesday that the 85 percent time-served threshold is an arbitrary measure and has proven to be “ineffective, costly, and unnecessarily harsh.”

The state needs a “more compassionate criminal justice framework,” he said.

McGhee said the 85 percent time-served requirement has had no impact on recidivism.

“For those who say this bill would allow criminals to walk our streets, I question your thinking,” he said. “The majority of the people who want a second chance are people who want some kind of help in terms of rehabilitation.”

McGhee said shaving the time-served requirement from 85 to 65 percent makes sense for state taxpayers also because it would save an estimated $860 million over the next five years.

“A billion dollars is on the table,” he said.

The Department of Corrections (DOC), with 96,000 inmates and nearly 166,000 offenders on probation, is the nation’s third-biggest state corrections system and Florida’s largest agency with 24,101 employees and a $2.411 billion annual budget.

The DOC is seeking an $89 million increase in its fiscal year 2021 budget request for corrections officer pay raises and a phased reduction from 12-hour shifts.

As such, Bracy said, SB 394 “is a direct response” to financial concerns by reducing state corrections costs by an estimated $860 million over the next five years.

Hart said the “gain time” bills are “urgently needed,” claiming the money taxpayers fork out to sustain “outdated sentencing policies” could be better used elsewhere, even within the DOC system.

After visiting 34 of the state’s 43 penitentiaries in the last few years, Hart said the the prisons have “constant problems (such as) a lack of quality medical care; the buildings are falling apart.”

Bracy on Oct. 1 also pre-filed a proposed “Conviction Integrity Review” bill to allow incarcerated people to submit petitions to the state attorney’s office requesting a review of his or her conviction.

Bracy’s SB 260 would require the state attorney of each judicial circuit in the state to establish a conviction integrity review unit and an independent review panel within the state attorney’s office to respond to petitions seeking a review of convictions.

Hart on Monday filed HB 299, the House companion to Bracy’s bill.

“The evidence to right a wrongful conviction for so many Floridians arrives too late for a jury to hear,” Hart said. “The Conviction Integrity Review Unit reflects a willingness to consider that a conviction that has been legally obtained is not always accurate.”

“Requiring each State Attorney to operate a Conviction Integrity Unit will help restore public trust and confidence in the judiciary system,” Bracy said.

Sen. Bobby Powell, D-West Palm Beach, pledged the support of the Legislative Black Caucus, but McGhee said the criminal justice reform movement is largely bipartisan and one dedicated to “save our future because what’s happening now isn’t working.”

“Our caucus is going to make this one of our top five priorities this session,” McGhee vowed. “Sixty days in our session, many committee weeks to go.”

The bills may gain traction among some Republicans, especially in the Senate where Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, has been spearheading the state’s criminal justice reform effort for several years.

On Monday, Brandes pre-filed SB 468, which would allow judges to deviate from minimum sentencing requirements if the court “finds the convicted person did not engage in a continuing criminal enterprise, did not threaten violence or use a weapon during the commission of the crime and did not cause death or serious bodily injury.”

Criminal justice reform advocates have long cited that the reliance on mandatory minimum sentencing results in too many people going to prison for too long at great cost not only to the immediately affected individuals, but to society.

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