Originally Published: Orlando Sentinel
Written by: Mike Huckabee
The past two weeks have seen important developments for criminal justice reform in Florida. The first was the Florida House articulating principles that underline an effective criminal justice system. The second was the introduction in the Senate of a comprehensive reform package that affirms those principles. Relying on the House’s values, and the Senate’s policies, the Legislature has the opportunity to take the first step toward making Florida’s criminal justice system the country’s best.
Before introducing the House criminal justice reform bill, House Judiciary Chair Paul Renner (R-Palm Coast) outlined three principles that represent a fair and just criminal justice system. The first was public safety, which Chair Renner correctly noted was the most important function of government. The second was the rule of law, which Chair Renner noted, includes due processes to guarantee no innocent person goes to prison. The third was proportionality, or the principle that “the punishment fits the crime.” These principles are the proper framework under which a criminal justice system should function, and the House should be commended for articulating them clearly.
Soon after the House announced these values, Senator Jeff Brandes (R, St. Petersburg) and several Senate colleagues introduced an amended version of SB 642 — the Florida First Step Act — that reflects these values. The bipartisan bill, modeled after federal legislation President Trump recently signed into law, would improve public safety, affirm the rule of law, and help restore proportionality in punishment.
Most importantly, SB 642 would improve public safety. A state report recently found Florida wastes tens of millions of dollars every year incarcerating thousands of low-risk offenders who could be diverted to more effective and less expensive sanctions. For these offenders, intensive drug treatment and community supervision would reduce the likelihood of re-offending, save taxpayers millions annually, and create prison space for dangerous criminals, an embarrassing percentage of whom are never even caught today. Dozens of states have saved money by adopting similar reforms, and reinvested the savings into proven crime-fighting strategies, including hiring more police officers and beefing up prosecutors’ offices. The results have been uniform — less crime and big savings.
The Florida First Step Act affirms due process and the rule of law by reforming laws that often undermine them. For example, mandatory minimums are often so severe, defendants who believe in their innocence are forced to plead guilty rather than assert their constitutional right to a fair trial. One recent report noted that 11 percent of prisoners later exonerated by DNA analysis pled guilty; many said the risk of trial was just too great. In Florida, even some minor drug crimes carry 25-year mandatory minimum sentences, and judges are powerless to impose anything less. Facing a quarter-century behind bars, even innocent defendants forgo the opportunity to clear their names rather than “roll the dice.”
Finally, the Florida First Step Act would help restore proportionality by allowing some prisoners to be resentenced under laws for which the legislature has already reduced penalties. For example, Erik Weyant has served 11 years of a 20-year mandatory minimum he received after he was convicted of aggravated assault for firing warning shots. In 2016, citing Erik’s case, the legislature reduced the penalty for that offense. Today, that crime carries a five-year maximum sentence, but Erik isn’t eligible for resentencing until the legislature says so. Cynthia Powell is a first-time offender in her 17th year of a 25-year mandatory sentence for a drug crime. After a 2014 reform, her offense now carries a seven-year minimum. She, too, is currently ineligible for resentencing. Retroactivity was a key component of President Trump’s First Step Act, and giving people like Erik and Cynthia a second chance is a critical element of the Florida First Step Act, too.
The Florida House has offered a compelling vision for a criminal justice system based on the sound principles of public safety, the rule of law, and proportionality. Senator Brandes and his colleagues have embraced those principles and proposed bold reforms that reflect them. If the legislature can pass the Florida First Step Act, they will have begun the process of making Florida’s criminal justice system the best in the country.