With his potentially-groundbreaking appointment to chair the Florida Senate Criminal Justice Committee, state Sen. Randolph Bracy is pledging to take an aggressive approach to criminal justice reform in Florida.
The Orlando-area Democrat’s chairmanship, announced last week by Republican Senate President Joe Negron, is highly unusual for three reasons: because Bracy is a Democrat, a freshman senator, and an African-American. The appointment signaled Negron’s desire to reach across the aisle, and to take concerns about criminal justice seriously, finding a black lawmaker with deep interest and experience in the subject.
The appointment came after Negron and Bracy had several conversations about how the Democrat might fit into the president’s senate.
“I don’t think it’s every happened, especially on the Criminal Justice Committee,” Bracy said of his chairmanship. “It’s a really big deal, not only as an African-American but as a Democrat. I’m honored and humbled.”
Senate Democrats say Bracy is just the second African-American chairman of a full committee. The first was Jim Hargrett of Tampa who chaired the Transportation Committee and the Tourism, Trade and Economic Development Committee in the 1990s. Hargrett also chaired a select committee on juvenile justice reform.
Race had nothing to do with the appointment, Negron said. He said he followed Bracy’s work in the house and had high regard for him based on his reputation, and their interactions, and spoke several times with Bracy this fall about how he could fit into the senate. Bracy expressed strong interest in criminal justice. While the Criminal Justice Committee leadership was a highly sought-after post, Negron found he had confidence in Bracy.
“I thought Sen. Bracy made a strong case based on his interest in that policy area. And as you can see from his committee assignments [which also include appropriations, banking and insurance, judiciary and regulated industries] he has a wide range of committee assignments which reflect my confidence in capabilities,” Negron said.
Bracy’s Senate District 11 includes some of the biggest and most-challenged African-American communities in Central Florida, on Orlando’s west side and in west Orange County. He had served on the House Criminal Justice Sub-committee all four years he spent in that chamber prior to being elected to the senate in November. He was ranking member last year.
He’s not the only Democrat to get appointed to chair a committee; he’s one of four this year, and the last couple of senate presidents also have included Democrats among committee appointments. But criminal justice creates a unique opportunity, in a time when the issue has sparked almost universal high interest and controversy.
“I’d like to be very aggressive in tackling criminal justice reform,” Bracy said. “I know I have to work under the senate president’s direction, but my hope is we can tackle some issues aggressively that are wrong in the criminal justice system. I hope I’m up to the challenge.”
Negron also has vowed a high priority for criminal justice reform, particularly relating to juvenile justice. He said he and Bracy share the commitment.
“That’s one of the areas that we talked about in person. We both share a commitment to not criminalize adolescents,” Negron said. “Obviously we can and should and will punish serious wrongdoing by young people. But at the same time let’s not criminalize adolescence. And we talked about policies going forward that give young people the opportunity to recover from mistakes in judgment.