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Scott McCoy, Raymer Maguire: Voters support Senate First Step Act, start of real criminal justice reform

Fortune favors the bold, and bold steps are what the people of Florida want.

In states across the country, Republicans and Democrats agree that prisons are stretched to the breaking point and must regain a focus on rehabilitation. Florida might be on the cusp of joining more than 35 other states that have rethought their approaches to criminal justice.

The Florida House passed a criminal justice reform package Monday on a 112-1 vote. The Senate is set to take up its more robust criminal justice reform bill soon.

As the Florida House and Senate begin to grapple with this vitally important issue, they should remember that the people of Florida are ready for bold reform that will make our state better and safer for everyone.

A new poll by Public Policy Polling shows that 70 percent of Floridians support the federal First Step Act, which became law at the end of 2018. That law is getting nonviolent drug offenders out of federal prison and investing in job training and re-entry support for those people in prison.

The same poll shows a majority of voters would oppose tepid reform that gets no one out of prison and invests no money in job training or re-entry support. Voters of all stripes agree that this is not sufficient criminal justice reform. Republicans are opposed 49-22 percent; Democrats are opposed 62-17 and independents are opposed 57-24 percent.

And the Florida Legislature can enact bold reform this week. The pieces are all in place. All the Legislature has to do is follow the will of the people to tackle the fundamental problems of our criminal justice system.

Legislators have the chance to revise the so-called “truth in sentencing” rule that artificially caps gain time — credit earned for good behavior, education or rehabilitative programs — for incarcerated people at 15 percent of their sentence. The current policy gives people in prison little incentive to engage in rehabilitation. But proposals now exist to expand the time that people could earn off their original sentence to 35 percent for people convicted of nonviolent crimes. We should be providing incentives that reward good behavior. The vast majority of incarcerated people will eventually return to their communities and lowering the caps on gain time will help these people return as better members of their communities.

When it comes to criminal justice reform, the best reform efforts actually get people out of our crowded prisons. Legislators can do this by making certain sentencing reforms retroactive — so some sentences will be shortened and other people will be able to get out immediately.

Bipartisan reforms proposed by Florida Sens. Jeff Brandes and Darryl Rouson include removing aggravated assault — firing a warning shot, for example — from the 10-20-Life mandatory minimum sentence scheme, and making the increase in gain time retroactive. These proposals will remove 6,700 people from our bloated prison system of nearly 100,000 people, invest in re-entry support and save over $800 million over five years on a prison system that costs Florida taxpayers $2.7 billion a year.

For people getting out of prison with a felony conviction, finding employment can be almost impossible. We have a chance to remove barriers to employment and occupational licensing so that returning citizens can provide for themselves and their families.

Finally, the Senate bill would require racial impact statements to identify the serious racial disparities that are manifest throughout our criminal justice system.

We lock up too many people of color, and these racial impact statements will help legislators understand which policies will deepen disparities and which will help to eliminate them.

It is encouraging to see the Florida House and Senate recognizing the importance of criminal justice reform.

On this subject, fortune favors the bold, and bold steps are what the people of Florida want.

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Scott McCoy is the senior policy counsel for the SPLC Action Fund. Raymer Maguire is the manager of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida’s criminal justice reform campaigns. Both are members of the Florida Campaign for Criminal Justice Reform.

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