TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (NSF) - Florida lawmakers on Friday overwhelmingly approved a criminal-justice package that includes the first change in 35 years to the legal threshold for felony theft and reducing punishment for some non-violent offenders.
Supporters said the legislation, which now heads to Gov. Ron DeSantis, is an “important first step” to addressing problems in Florida’s criminal-justice system, with some lawmakers saying they would like to see it go further.
“Obviously, there’s more that I wish we could have done,” said Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican who sponsored the bill (HB 7125) in the Senate. “I hope over the next few years we will cast a bold vision for what criminal justice should look like in this state.”
At the start of the legislative session, Brandes proposed a package that would have allowed thousands of non-violent offenders to be released from prison earlier for good behavior. It also would have given judges more leeway over sentences of nonviolent drug offenders.
But the Senate could not reach a compromise on some of the biggest changes proposed by Brandes, and a deal was struck to strip a number of provisions as the legislative session prepared to end. Lawmakers were expected to finish most of the session Friday, returning Saturday only to pass a budget.
The House voted 110-0 on Friday to give final approval to the package, which the Senate approved in a 39-1 vote Thursday. Only Sen. Randolph Bracy, D-Orlando, voted against the bill.
The package includes, among many things, raising the felony-theft threshold from $300 to $750. The House has initially sought to increase the threshold to $1,000, but that came down amid strong opposition from some of the state’s largest retailers like Walgreens and Walmart.
“It’s a long time coming,” said Rep. Wengay Newton, D-St. Petersburg. Using an example of a 14-year-old boy who stole a cell phone and had a felony on his record, Newton said raising the threshold “gives young people opportunities so they can come back.”
Other changes praised by Republicans and Democrats in both chambers included expanding the availability of inmate reentry programs and offering more opportunities for felons to get occupational licenses.
Also, the bill would raise the base threshold amount for trafficking in hydrocodone from 14 grams to 28 grams, and non-violent drug offenders would have their driver's licenses suspended for six months instead of a year.
But lawmakers didn’t go as far as many criminal-justice reform advocates wanted. For example, the Senate agreed to scrap a proposal that would have allowed convicted non-violent offenders to be released from prison after serving 65 percent of their sentences instead of 85 percent for good behavior.
Another proposal that did not make it across the finish line would have allowed people who committed aggravated assaults or attempted aggravated assaults to have sentences reduced if their crimes took place before July 1, 2016, when the Legislature had harsher mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines for those crimes.
Tossing some of these proposals frustrated people such as Bracy, who said he was “tired of submitting to the will of the House” on issues.
But other reform advocates, including some conservative-leaning groups, were supportive of the package overall.
“This is only the beginning, and we are so encouraged by the appetite to shift resources from the bricks and mortar of prison to developing better interventions to reduce recidivism, prevent victimization and promote public safety,” said Chelsea Murphy, the Florida state director for Right on Crime, which is backed by Koch Industries and the conservative Koch network of donors.