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Senate panel pushes criminal justice overhaul bill

A sweeping criminal justice bill that would upend how the state collects data on offenders in an attempt to better determine who is incarcerated and for how long is moving in the Senate.

The measure would require the Department of Corrections to use risk-assessment instruments that can identify the appropriate intervention and program for an offenders in an effort to reduce recidivism. Sen. Jeff Brandes said his bill (SB 1218) could be used as the foundation for “meaningful” criminal justice reform in the future.

Lobbyist Barney Bishop told the panel he is in favor of bolstering data collection on the criminal justice field, but said it will cost the state a “good chunk.” According to staff analysis, that “chunk” would amount to nearly $1.1 million — nearly $764,000 of which would go to technology-related costs for the assessment system.

Groups that included the Florida Association of Counties, the James Madison Institute, Americans for Prosperity and Right on Crime told the panel they were in support of the bill and Agnes Furey, a Tallahassee restorative justice advocate.

The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal Justice Subcommittee cleared the measure unanimously before adjourning for the 2018 legislative session.

“This remains a work in progress and we will continue to work on it,” Brandes said. “It’s amazing to see the shift we are seeing in the Senate and the Legislature as a whole.”

In Florida, there are about 96,000 inmates incarcerated in a system that costs taxpayers an estimated $2.4 billion every year. Brandes has taken the lead in championing reforms this year that have not gained much traction in the Legislature over the years — and some that the House may find a bit hard to swallow, like changing the state’s mandatory minimum sentences.

But both chambers are on the same page when it comes to data collection. The Florida House on Wednesday passed HB 7071, which leadership called a “game changing criminal justice data transparency” bill.

Republican state Rep. Chris Sprowls said the measure will make the state a “model for effective, data-driven criminal justice” and “create the gold standard for the rest of the country.”

The measure would require the DOC to report and publish, on a quarterly basis, inmate admission by offense type and recidivism rates with a unique identifier for each person who is subject of a criminal case. Information on those who make the arrests or prosecute the cases would not be tracked under the bill.

“As a former prosecutor, I know that our justice system must be better informed and that there are changes needed to create a more fair, accountable and transparent system,” Sprowls said.

Osceola County finds sweet spot for medical marijuana dispensaries

It may have taken 16 months, an attempt by the Florida Legislature to tie local authorities’ hands, and threats of a lawsuit, but the Osceola County Commission has found what many may consider the sweet spot in approving retail sales of medical marijuana.

As a result, one medical marijuana company gets exclusive rights to open stores in Osceola County, but just three of them.

On Monday the Osceola County Commission approved two measures that will allow three medical marijuana dispensaries in the county, one on U.S. 192 between Kissimmee and Celebration; one on U.S. 192 between Kissimmee and St. Cloud; and one on South John Young Parkway between Kissimmee and Poinciana; and then to ban any additional cannabis dispensaries in the county.

The medical marijuana business was awarded to San Felasco Nursery of Gainesville, which is also known as Grandiflora, and which is operating its medical marijuana retail business under the name The Green Solution, in association with a Colorado-based medical marijuana company of that name.

“I’m really happy to see Osceola County residents are going to have access to the medicine that a lot of them need, without having to go way out of their way to get it,” said Osceola County Commissioner Viviana Janer, who supported The Green Solution stores getting their certificates, and who nonetheless also voted for the countywide ban.

Elsewhere, throughout Florida, most cities and counties have struggled with their options on medical marijuana.

That’s because last summer the Florida Legislature restricted local options to essentially allowing as many medical marijuana stores as the market would bear, to go in anywhere that a pharmacy could be located; or to ban them entirely. Many local officials who knew they have Walgreens and CVSs around the corner from schools, churches, and prize tourist attractions, shuddered at the “anywhere” option. So many cities and counties voted to ban them, even though many of the same officials involved said they wouldn’t mind a small number of stores in carefully-chosen locations.

In Osceola County’s case, their first assessment was to provide for three or four stores countywide. They’re getting three.

“Things just seemed to work out,” said Osceola County spokesman Mark Pino.

Here’s how they worked out: In October 2016 the county commission approved a regulatory ordinance detailing how “medical marijuana treatment centers” would be approved for operation certificates. San Felasco applied and got preliminary county approval for three locations. Meanwhile, Florida voters approved Amendment 2 in November 2016, greatly expanding the state’s medical marijuana industry. So before The Green Solution certificates could be issued, Osceola County backtracked, and approved a temporary moratorium, buying time to see what the Florida Legislature would do about the new, expanded law. The legislature’s response was to pass the enabling legislation that included the all-or-nothing choice for counties and cities. The Green Solution threatened to sue Osceola County to get its already-approved certificates. Osceola settled.

On Monday the board of county commissioners approved the settlement with The Green Solution, and then approved a county-wide ban henceforth, under the state-mandated all-or-nothing provision.

“This is an equitable solution to this matter and gives us, as the local jurisdiction, the power to prevent an out-of-control proliferation of these facilities,” Commission Chairman Fred Hawkins, Jr. stated in a news release. “When voters approved Amendment 2, I don’t think they wanted dispensaries on every street corner in the community. This agreement and our ban cements this intent while allowing those who need this service the ability to access it.”

With Parkland students present, Senate postpones gun bill vote

A Senate bill that would allow guns in churches with schools attached was temporarily postponed on Wednesday, but it could still come back later in the legislative session.

As Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting survivors filled the seats in the Senate gallery, Senate President Joe Negron said the gun bill by Republican Sen. Dennis Baxley would be “temporarily postponed today.” The bill (SB 1048) was ready for a final vote in the chamber.

Whether the bill is considered in the last two weeks of session, Negron said, is up to the Baxley and Senate Rules Chair Lizbeth Benacquisto.

Baxley’s proposal would allow those with concealed carry permits to bring guns into churched if they have the permission from the property owner, unless there are school-sponsored activities going on.

The House is considering a similar bill that does not restrict gun access to the premise during school hours. That bill is ready for a final vote, but has yet to be heard.

As Parkland students call for gun control, motion to ban assault rifles fails

Clad in black, students who survived the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting walked the halls of the Florida Capitol on Tuesday, going in and out of lawmakers’ offices asking them to pass gun control measures.

Each held a clipboard with their itinerary for the day and had a somber look on their face, still incredulous that bullets didn’t hit them — and that 15 of their classmates and two of their teachers were dead.

Because they survived, they say it is their duty to speak on behalf of those who did not.

Emily Smith, an 18-year-old senior at the high school, said she came to Tallahassee despite wanting to be with her family in the wake of yet another mass casualty incident in her life.

Smith was in Boston when bombs detonated at the marathon in 2013 and her father survived the Fort Lauderdale International Airport shooting last year. Last week, when Nikolas Cruz opened fire at her campus and killed 17 people, Smith was on her way to school.

She said a traffic delay may have saved her life.

“I’ve grown up watching it and I’m tired of nothing being done, and if I can be part of this and I can do something about it then there is no reason why I shouldn’t be here,” Smith said.

Rachel Catania, a sophomore at the high school who also is in Tallahassee this week, said her teacher pulled her inside a classroom when the shooting was active.

She hid in a corner for three hours, watching text messages from her mother flood into her cell phone, which was without service.

“She kept asking if I was OK, but I couldn’t answer,” Catania said.

These are some of the moments that have made these teenagers turn their grief into activism at the Legislature. Students say they are mostly in support of gun control measures.

Some of the bills the students support may not gain enough momentum to pass the Republican-controlled Legislature this session. With less than three weeks left in session, proposals made by Republicans that would boost mental health funding at schools and bolster campus security are getting support from leadership in both chambers.

House Democrats on Tuesday still tried to make some noise on the floor with a parliamentary move to rescue an assault rifle ban filed by Orlando Democrat Carlos G. Smith.

Democratic Leader-designate Kionne McGhee evoked a House rule to pull the bill (HB 219) out of the committee process, where it hasn’t been heard, in hopes of bringing it directly to the floor for debate and a vote.

The motion failed.

“I wasn’t surprised, but it was disheartening to watch 73 of those names on the board turn red,” said Sheryl Acquarola, a 16-year-old student from Parkland.

“It was overwhelming, but it is good because now their names are on the record and now we know who to vote out of office.”

Richard Corcoran puts more money behind new immigration tv ad

House Speaker Richard Corcoran is doubling down on his tough-on-immigration talk with a new television ad that calls for more deportations.

The television ad is less incendiary than his first one, which was hcriticized by Democrats for portraying immigrants who came into the country illegally as a danger to Floridians.

Records show the new media buy will run at least on the CBS affiliate in Orlando — not Fox News, which was the focus of his first buy.

“President Trump is right, we need to end chain migration, ban sanctuary cities and deport criminal illegals,” Corcoran says in the ad.

Between 2016 and 2017, federal immigration agents deported 7,082 undocumented immigrants in the Miami responsibility area, which includes Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Of those deported, 51 percent were “noncriminal” deportations, meaning the subject did not have previous criminal convictions.

It remains unclear exactly how much money Corcoran spent to run the new ad. Taylor Budowich, a spokesman with Corcoran’s Watchdog Pac, declined to comment on it. But according his political committees’ expenditure reports, nearly $97,000 were dropped on a media placement buy on Feb. 14.

The move to air the ad in the wake of the Parkland high school mass shooting has already drawn some criticism from the Florida Democratic Party.

“While Floridians are demanding action to prevent gun violence, Richard Corcoran is still demonizing immigrants with divisive, fact-free TV ads,” FDP spokesman Kevin Donohoe said. “If Corcoran is serious about making Florida safer, he should start working to pass common sense gun control bills.”

Corcoran has yet to officially announce his run for Governor, but these ads continue to erase doubt that he will run once the 2018 Legislative Session ends. It also appears that immigration will be a core issue in his campaign.

Day after school shooting, Senate panel sets hearing for gun bill

A day after 17 people were gunned down at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Republican Sen. Greg Steube scheduled a hearing for a gun bill he is co-sponsoring that would allow school officials to designate certain people to carry concealed weapons on campus.

School principals and school district superintendents would be able to choose one or more people to bring concealed weapons to campus for security measures if they go through a criminal background check and training.

Under the bill (SB 1236)  filed by Sen. Dennis Baxley, the designee is not required to undergo a mental health evaluation, an issue that took center stage in the Senate in the wake of the mass shooting.

Senate President Joe Negron on Thursday said his focus is on boosting funding for mental health services and counseling at schools as well as campus security.

“In general, President Negron supports increased funding and resources for local school boards to enhance security in our schools,” said Katie Betta, a Senate spokeswoman. “This includes a local option to utilizing specially-trained school personnel to enhance security and keep our students safe.”

Betta, though, said that did not mean Negron was backing the bill. Negron’s top two lieutenants, Sens. Bill Galvano and Wilton Simpson, however, are opposed to the bill moving forward, according to POLITICO Florida.

The bill is up for consideration next Tuesday in Senate Judiciary, which has blocked gun legislation in the past because of two deciding Republican votes: Rene Garcia and Anitere Flores. Most recently the two Miami Republicans were wary of another gun bill sponsored by Baxley, which would in certain cases allow guns in religious institution with schools attached to them.

A companion bill in the House, sponsored by Republican state Rep. Bob Rommel, is in its second of three committee stops before it can hit the full floor.

Philip Levine wants ‘immediate policy changes’ on gun laws

Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine wrote Speaker of the House Richard Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron on Thursday, urging a commitment to gun control measures in the wake of the Parkland massacre Wednesday.

“We need more than thoughts and prayers — we need immediate policy changes that can have an immediate deterrence of these tragic incidents,” Levine wrote.

Levine, a candidate for the Democratic nomination for Governor, saw a primary opponent (Gwen Graham) issue her own calls for gun control measures.

Levine goes farther in terms of policy recommendations than Graham does.

He calls for a reversal of state laws pre-empting local gun bans, a ban on semi-automatic and assault rifles, fast background checks, and a review of mental health funding.

Levine’s letter references a 2016 resolution passed by Miami Beach that calls for a statewide assault weapons ban, while also calling for the end of pre-emption of local gun bans.

The “Legislature’s endless obsession with pre-empting local mayors and city commissioners from enacting sensible policies in their local communities has tied the hands of those who are closest to the people,” Levine writes.

Levine also references “legislation making its way through our legislative session that would weaken background checks, allow guns on college campuses and efforts to weaponize our schools. These policies are simply disgusting and only serve to undermine our public safety.”

“I urge you to immediately suspend the above-referenced legislation from moving forward in Tallahassee and redirect efforts to swiftly enact sensible and responsible gun reforms this year,” Levine writes.

In wake of Parkland shooting, Senate focuses on mental health funding

As the country grapples with the aftermath of a high school mass shooting in Broward County, Senate President Joe Negron said Thursday the upper chamber will be focused on boosting funding for mental health and campus security — not gun control.

“I think that the key for me — and what I am focusing on — is making sure that people who have mental instabilities or mental health issues don’t have access to firearms,” Negron told reporters.

When asked about measures that have stalled in the Legislature that would limit access to semi-automatic weapons and high-capacity magazines, Negron said that is not the Senate’s focus. The suspected gunman, Nikolas Cruz, was armed with an AR-15 rifle that was legally purchased in the state.

“My focus is on making sure that lawful citizens who are obeying the law and are entitled to their constitutional rights have appropriate access to firearms,” he said.

Offering their “thoughts and prayers” for the victims, incoming Senate President Bill Galvano and Senate Majority Leader Wilton Simpson echoed Negron’s priorities and said he is asking senators to support an $100 million in funding for mental health screening, counseling and training, and the “hardening” of Florida schools.

“It’s imperative that a portion of this allocation goes toward ensuring that we have the necessary number of armed resource officers at our schools across Florida,” Galvano said. “We must identity where the gaps exist and immediately work to fill them.”

“Sen. Galvano and I have had some preliminary discussions about that,” Senate Appropriations Committee chair Rob Bradley said Thursday. “Right now, the Senate is at $40 million … reorienting monies to make that higher is something we need to take seriously. Our school facilities should be appropriately hardened.”

When asked about state gun control legislation, he added: “The federal government has restrictions on a lot of these specific types of weapons … It’s a 50-state problem. But there should not be any sacred cows. OK?

“I’m a strong Second Amendment supporter. I always have been. I believe it is a fundamental right under the Constitution. But I also think the Constitution does not guarantee a mentally ill person the right to have a weapon.”

Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel said there was an armed officer on duty at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School at the time of the deadly shooting, but the officer never encountered the suspect.

“We are working today to immediately identify and direct funding to hardening our schools and provide for armed resource officers on every campus for safety and prevention,” Simpson said.

Meanwhile, legislation that would have loosened the application process for concealed weapon permits has snarled in the Senate due to the “timing” and “sensitivity” of the recent tragedy, Negron said.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Adam Putnam   who has called himself a “proud NRA sellout”  worked to tuck language into an agriculture-related bill that would allow permits to be processed even when there is an incomplete background check on a person.

The proposal was scheduled for a hearing Thursday, but was postponed due to the shooting. Whether it will be heard again, Negron said, is up to the bill sponsor, Sen. Kelli Stargel.

As Senate leadership pushes for these issues, a bipartisan group of House members has sent a letter to House Speaker Richard Corcoran asking to match the funding proposed by the chamber that would go to school safety and mental health services.

“Currently, the Senate has proposed that the Safe Schools allocation be increased by about $14 million while in the House no increase is being proposed within the current budget,” the letter states. “In addition, the Senate has proposed $40 million toward mental health for schools, while the House has proposed no specific appropriations for mental health care in schools.”

Capital correspondent Jim Rosica contributed to this post.

House passes bill that would allow certain minors to wed

Moving away from an outright ban on all underage marriages, the Florida House on Wednesday sent the Senate a proposal that would allow certain minors to wed in cases when there is a pregnancy.

“I believe this bill will put Florida in the forefront of putting [a] safeguard in place and protecting children,” said state Rep. Jeanette Nunez, who led the effort in the House. “This absolutely ends the horrors of child marriage.”

With overwhelming support, the House voted to change current state law to make it illegal for marriage licenses to be issued to all minors under the age of 16. But members still voted to permit 16- and 17-year-olds to wed in cases where there is pregnancy and the partner is no more than two years older than the minor.

The Senate was looking to ban all underage marriages.

Under the House proposal, minors get pregnant and are at least 16 years old can get married with parental consent — unless parents of both minors have died or if the minors were previously married. Nunez said marriage licenses issued to minors outside of Florida would be honored.

The House also got rid of language that would have required a paternity test before a marriage license could be issued to a minor. Critics said this could potentially trap minors into marrying their rapists.

Only two Republican state representatives voted against the measure, George Moraitis and Julio Gonzalez. They thought it went too far and that older teens should have the option to marry in cases when there is no pregnancy involved, adding that it a decision that should be “put in the hands of a family.”

“What is true love? I don’t mean that romantically … I mean finding a partner that is going to carry you for the rest of your life,” Gonzalez said, “is it true that you can find it in a 17-year-old that is not pregnant?”

House Speaker Richard Corcoran has said he is in support of permitting some minors to wed because it would give “high school sweethearts” the option to tie the knot if they want.

House panel advances bill adding protections to cellphone searches

A House proposal that would change the way law enforcement officers get their hands on data from a person’s cellphone was pushed on Tuesday to its last committee assignment.

Republican state Rep. Jamie Grant said his bill (HB 1249) would require police to “reflect constitutional due process” when they search a person’s phone-location records as well as data from microphone-enabled household devices like Amazon Echo and Google Home.

“At the founding of our country the Fourth Amendment is the most important protection and technology has made it more challenging,” said Republican state Rep. Cord Byrd, who chairs the House Justice Appropriations Subcommittee where the bill was last heard.

With no questions or debate, and the Public Defenders Association and Florida Smart Justice Alliance waiving in support, the measure passed unanimously. Now it heads to the Judiciary Committee, where Grant said there will be an opportunity to further discuss tweaks in policy to the bill.

Under the House bill, law enforcement officers would need probable cause and a court-issued warrant to search a person’s cellular device. Officers would need to install a mobile-tracking device within 10 days of obtaining the warrant and would only have access to the location data for 45 days, unless the court grants an extension for the search.

The measure also would widen the scope of activity in which a person can be charged for accessing another person’s phone without permission. Under the bill, reading emails or emails on another person’s phone or laptop without permission would be a crime.

If someone accesses a phone’s data without permission for the purpose of destroying the data or commercial gain, it could be punishable by up to a year in county jail.

House staff analysis said the state prison population would “insignificantly” increase.

The companion bill (SB 1256) in the Senate, sponsored by Sen. Jeff Brandes, has also been moving along in the upper chamber. Both measures differ in that Brandes’ bill would offer protections to businesses that access information from an electronic device if the data “prevents identification of the user of the device.”

Brandes’ bill is up for consideration Wednesday in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

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