Juveniles who complete court-ordered diversion programs for several types of charges will now be able to get those records expunged. A bipartisan effort passed the legislature unanimously and was signed into law by Governor DeSantis a few weeks ago. It does not extend to forcible felonies. This is limited to those who complete diversion, which generally involves first-time offenders with non-violent charges that are ultimately dropped upon completion of the diversion programs.
This is another good step to meaningful criminal justice reform. I’d like to see all charges that get dropped eligible for expungement. Right now, some adult charges for people who are acquitted, or even not filed on, cannot be expunged if the alleged offender has a prior conviction, even if it is unrelated. Imagine being acquitted of a false allegation only for the arrest to remain a public record. More work needs to be done for criminal justice reform, but it is always good to see progress.
As the Florida legislative session gets underway this month, there is more criminal justice reform potentially up for discussion. Last year, Florida followed the federal government’s lead and passed a major criminal justice reform bill. That bill garnered widespread, bipartisan support and only suffered one ‘no’ vote in the Florida House. One of the issues that passed the Senate but did not make the House bill, nor the final law, was a reduction in the minimum amount of time that must be served on a prison sentence.
Currently, Florida requires that a DOC inmate must serve at least 85% of their sentence, and can only qualify for up to 15% time off for good behavior. The courts do not have any discretion to go any lower, and Florida no longer grants parole. There are some circumstances where inmates are released onto a parole-like ‘supervised release’, but they must first serve out 85% of their sentence. There is a new proposal this year that would potentially allow inmates to have a chance at release after serving 65% of their sentence. That modest reduction would save the state $860 million and remove 9,000 people from prison by 2024.
Also, the bill limits eligible reductions to non-forcible felonies, so murders, rapists and other dangerous individuals will still be subject to the 85% requirement, even if the bill passes. There is an argument to be made that some sentences for violent offenders are excessive, but the proposed bill does not reach that far and should not bar its consideration. One of the biggest hurdles it faces are that there are private companies that stand to profit from mass incarceration, and will lobby hard to shoot it down again. That’s going to cost Florida taxpayers money, even though both political parties agree sentencing reform makes sense.
The legislature will also be considering changes that would allow judges some discretion for sentencing certain drug offenders below current minimum mandatory requirements. This bill would be even more limited in scope than the gain time provision, and would not give relief to the most serious drug dealers for example. (It sounds similar to the ‘safety valve’ provisions of federal sentencing laws.) The bill contains other provisions limiting personal-use possession type offenses to county jail sentences, as well as requirements that when suspects of some offenses interviewed in a detention facility, that the entirety of the interview be recorded. The bill was already unanimously approved in the Senate committee which speaks to its bipartisan appeal.
Criminal justice reform has been a growing topic of late, and has been garnering more and more support from both sides of the aisle. Recently, even President Trump has signaled his support for such reform. It makes sense from a lot of standpoints: more efficient justice, less recidivism and less expense, while reuniting families: especially those separated by excessively long prison sentences for non-violent offenses. The growing movement has finally gained enough steam that the Senate appears poised to vote on a justice-bill, albeit a ‘slimmed-down’ version, before the end of the year. This is a good thing, though as the name of the bill, the “First Step Act”, implies, it should be merely the beginning of positive reforms.
Bar President Michelle Suskauer
Florida also has a need for criminal justice reform. Florida has a very draconian sentencing structure, in many cases imposing decades-long mandatory minimum sentences on non-violent offenses that far exceed the federal sentences that are being reconsidered. Florida Bar President Michelle Suskauer, who has spent many years in the justice system as a defense attorney and is acutely aware of the issues has made a push for consideration of the issue to raise awareness. The Florida Bar recently held a Criminal Justice summit to discuss the issue (the Bar cannot take a position), and Suskauer wrote an informative update in an OpEd published in the News-Press this week, and elsewhere. You should definitely check out her more detailed article, here.