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Senate ready to move on ‘Florida First Step Act’  

The criminal justice overhaul cleared its last committee Thursday.

An ambitious criminal justice reform package is primed for consideration by the full Senate and is expected to draw negotiations between a different House plan in the waning days of the Legislative Session.  

The measure (SB 642) on Thursday cleared the Senate Appropriations Committee, the last stop for the bill. It includes a series of changes, all with an eye toward reducing prison populations and helping the incarcerated transition back into society.

Dubbed “The Florida First Step Act,” the bill takes its namesake from a federal reform package signed into law last year by President Donald Trump.

Like its national counterpart, the bill would give judges discretion in sentencing some criminals charged with drug crimes that carry mandatory minimums. Sen. Jeff Brandes, the bill’s sponsor, has called the provision a “safety valve” for the special group of nonviolent offenders the provision applies to.

“We’re trying to take the broader view of allowing downward departures for certain mandatory minimums in the state,” Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican, told reporters earlier this week.

The bill is a wide-ranging plan that’s evolved over the course of the lawmaking process. Tacked onto the measure this week were provisions that had been separately introduced as other bills.

The Florida First Step Act, for example, now contains language that would allow Supreme Court justices who reside outside Leon County to have an “official headquarters” elsewhere “as the justice’s private chambers.” That idea has been vetted as separate legislation. 

It also includes language to raise the felony-theft threshold from $300 to $750, something senators have addressed separately as well. 

Brandes amended the bill this week to align it with a House measure (HB 7125) that is ready for floor consideration in the chamber. He added provisions like the House’s plan to repeal a mandatory minimum sentence “for the sale, purchase, or possession of horsemeat for human consumption unless clearly stamped, marked, and described as horsemeat for human consumption.”

The two pieces of legislation also would reduce barriers for occupational licensing, expected to help former inmates — who might’ve been a barber in prison — get the same job after completing their sentences. The House also is moving forward with a felony-theft threshold increase to $1,000.

But differences exist between the two overhauls.

The House has not included the same judicial discretion language that the Senate has. Also, the Senate plan would lower the required time-served threshold from 85 percent to 65 percent for certain first-time, non-violent offenders. The House hasn’t included that change to what’s known as “gain time.”

In the Senate plan, new language would make retroactive a 2016 change to a mandatory minimum for some instances of aggravated assault and attempted aggravated assault. That’s something that isn’t in the House bill but is permitted under a 2018 change to the state Constitution that repealed the “Savings Clause.”

These issues will have to be ironed out between the two chambers if they want to send something to Gov. Ron DeSantis before the fast-approaching (and tentative) May 3 end to Session.

“Session really started this week,” Brandes said earlier this week. “This is when everything starts to get negotiated.”

Greg Newburn, state policy director for FAMM — a national criminal justice advocacy group — highlighted the three major Senate provisions absent from the House plan in a statement.

“The judicial safety valve, retroactivity of prior reforms, and expanding gain time for non-violent offenders are all data-driven changes that will protect public safety and repair broken families,” Newburn said.

Because the reforms are expected to reduce prison costs, they’ve been heralded by conservatives as necessary and overdue changes. Free-market-minded groups like The James Madison Insitute, Americans for Prosperity (AFP) and Right on Crime have been actively sharing that message with the Republican-led Legislature.

“The Florida First Step Act takes a smart on crime, soft on taxpayers approach to improving our state’s criminal justice system and moving Florida forward,” said Skylar Zander, the state director for AFP-Florida, after Thursday’s vote.

Written By

Danny McAuliffe is a Tallahassee correspondent for Florida Politics. He is a graduate of Florida State University, where he served as the editor of the FSView & Florida Flambeau. He is a lifelong Floridian and indulges in swimming, hiking, running and memes when the news cycle permits. Reach him at dmcauliffe500@gmail.com.

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