Originally Published: Sarasota Herald-Tribune
Written by: John Kennedy

The next two weeks at the Florida Capitol will determine whether state lawmakers enact what some have called the boldest criminal justice reform ever seen in the state.

TALLAHASSEE — The next two weeks at the Florida Capitol will determine whether state lawmakers enact what some have called the boldest criminal justice reform ever seen in the state.

But for Jill Trask of Atlanta, it may also shape whether she has any chance of celebrating a December wedding anniversary with her husband, Joel, who has been behind bars in Florida the past 11 years.

“I’ve been serving 11 years with him,” Trask told a Senate committee Tuesday, recounting their lost years together.

Joel Trask, sentenced to a mandatory 20 years in prison for aggravated assault in St. Lucie County, could become eligible for release under legislation advancing in the Senate.

Jill Trask said that when her husband was told of the measure, “He wept on the phone, because now he has a glimmer of hope.”

But those anniversary dreams tied to a dramatic overhaul of Florida’s troubled prison system hinge on tough upcoming talks between the Senate and House, as the Legislature hurtles toward a scheduled May 3 finish.

“Everything’s being negotiated right now,” said Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Naples.

While the Senate is pushing for sweeping changes that could lead to the eventual release of thousands of inmates, the House is offering a more modest revision (HB 7125) that wouldn’t do much for those now serving time under tough-on-crime laws approved in the 1990s.

But Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, sponsor of the Senate overhaul (SB 642) said the Legislature is shifting away from two decades of a lock-’em-up approach, which has spawned 108 mandatory minimum crimes that crowd prisons, strain the state budget and leave inmates with scant rehabilitation, training or prospects for not returning to crime when released.

Florida’s 96,000-inmate prison system is the third-largest in the U.S. and commands a $2.4 billion budget. The state’s crime rate is at a 55-year low, but House leaders say that’s a reason to be wary of too much change.

Brandes disagrees.

“We’ve got to focus on diversion on the front end, we’ve got to help people transition back into society on the back end, but to do that, we’ve got to fix the middle,” Brandes said, referring to the prison system.

Opening doors

The Senate legislation could open prison doors for nonviolent and drug offenders who have served 65 percent of their sentences — a dramatic shift from the state’s toughest-in-the-nation 85 percent standard in place since the mid-1990s.

That change would free an estimated 7,800 prisoners over five years, eventually saving taxpayers $419 million per year.

Inmates serving mandatory minimum sentences for aggravated assault — like Trask — and drug crimes, often linked to opioid addiction, also would have a chance to go before a judge and have their sentences reduced, under the Senate bill.

Brandes said his approach is based on responding to voters, who last November approved constitutional Amendment 11. The measure repealed an 1885 provision called the “savings clause,” which prohibited the Legislature from making retroactive changes to criminal sentencing laws.

House Judiciary Chair Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, said his side is unlikely to embrace changing the 85 percent requirement or revamp mandatory minimums.

“There’s always a chance in coming years to have further conversations,” Renner said.

“I think we’re happy,” he added. “We spent a lot of time with a lot of stakeholders, prosecutors, the sheriffs, the chiefs of police, the public defenders, the advocates for criminal justice reform and I think where we’ve landed is a place where five to 10 years ago, you would’ve said wasn’t possible.”

Promoting changes

For several years, a coalition of lawmakers from both parties, inmate advocacy organizations, legal experts and conservative organizations, including the Koch network, have been promoting changes as costs within the problem-plagued Florida Corrections Department continued to swell.

While more than half of state prisoners are in for violent crimes — and unlikely to gain much from even the Senate’s proposed changes — 36 percent of inmates are imprisoned for nonviolent drug or property offenses, and seen as most eligible for help.

Other changes advancing in Tallahassee look certain to win approval from both the House and Senate.

The House wants to raise the threshold for felony theft from $300 to $1,000 — the first time this standard would be increased since 1986, while the Senate would bring the level to $750. Retailers have traditionally opposed the boost, but the move looks likely now.

Other House steps, also endorsed by the Senate, would expand programs to help released inmates return to society; make it easier for them to get occupational licenses and change probation rules to require tightest supervision only for the most serious offenders.

The House and Senate revise some lower-level drug sentences, along with those faced by some re-offenders, juveniles and youthful offenders.

But in a move seen as defying the Senate’s groundbreaking changes, the House’s primary attack on mandatory minimums is confined to erasing a one-year prison term on the books in Florida for selling, distributing or transporting horse meat for human consumption — a rarely charged crime.

Heading into the Legislature’s homestretch, House allies include law enforcement and prosecuting attorneys associations, critical of the Senate’s easing the 85 percent sentencing requirement.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has stayed out of the legislative clash so far. But as a protégé of President Donald Trump, the new governor is seen as likely influenced by the federal First Step Act, which the president signed into law just before Christmas.

The measure, passed with bipartisan support, looks to reduce mass incarceration in federal prisons, letting thousands out early and enacting rehabilitation programs for federal inmates before their release.

The Trump connection is also being used to taunt the Republican-controlled Legislature into major action.

David Safavian, general counsel of the American Conservative Union, described the House proposal as “weak tea, indeed.” And he urged lawmakers to get behind the Senate approach.

“If Trump can drive criminal justice reform legislation in a city as divided and partisan and bitter as Washington, D.C., there’s no reason why policymakers in Tallahassee can’t do the same,” Safavian said.