Elliot Saunders: Proven solutions that can make Florida safer

cold case crime unsolved
This reform promises to both keep people on the right path and also save taxpayers’ money.

Nearly 17 years have passed since my son Isaiah was murdered. He was only 18 years old, and not a day has passed that my wife and I have not mourned his still-unsolved death.

Over the years, we have channeled our pain into action by helping other families who have lost a loved one to violence and by supporting a vision of public safety and criminal justice that reduces the likelihood of others suffering as we have.

This year, along with nearly 8,000 other Florida members of Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice, a national organization committed to stopping cycles of crime and violence through prevention and healing, we are wholeheartedly embracing legislation that would support Florida crime victims in the wake of serious violence, make probation more effective at rehabilitating people who commit low-level offenses, and ensure that people who are arrested but never convicted do not carry a lifelong record that prevents them from getting back to work or contributing as members of society.

These changes have their roots in HB 7125, 2019 legislation that represents the most significant reform of our state’s criminal justice system in two decades.

That bipartisan bill, signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis, made changes in probation practices that would hold people accountable, while also avoiding costly and counterproductive prison time, when they had not committed another crime but violated a rule of probation, such as missing a meeting with their probation supervisor. It also removed barriers for people exiting the justice system to become barbers, beauticians, septic tank workers, etc. so that they may get back to work and function as stable members of society.

Finally, HB 7125 extended from one year to three the time survivors have to apply for victim compensation, a state program that gives victims resources to bury a loved one, get counseling, etc. This last provision would have had a tremendous impact on our lives if it were on the books when our son died.

This year’s legislation builds upon those reforms.

The first part of this package, introduced as HB 0949 by Rep. Kevin Chambliss and as SB 1308 by Sen. Shervin Jones, would make immediate family members of homicide victims eligible for up to three days of time off to make final arrangements for their slain loved one, protect their home or relocate, and cooperate with law enforcement.

I know from personal experience that making funeral arrangements or meeting with law enforcement following the death of a close family member can feel overwhelming. This burden is even worse if you fear that missing a few days of work will cost you your job. Florida already provides some recourse to victims of domestic violence who need time to find safe housing or file for an order of protection. The same work accommodations should be extended to families wracked by loss from murder.

Another bill in this legislative package, introduced as HB 611 by Rep. Michelle Salzman and as SB 1138 by Sen. Bobby Powell, further reduces the likelihood that someone on probation for a low-level offense will go to prison simply for failing to adhere to the conditions of their release or committing an infraction where no one was harmed.

The architects of HB 7125 recognized that holding people accountable for their actions in the community encourages them to meet their obligations and demonstrate their commitment to rehabilitation. There should be consequences when people on probation fail to meet expectations — alternative sanctions such as more frequent meetings with probation officers or mandatory participation in programs like drug treatment or job training.

But a return to prison when the failure presents a low risk to public safety can be a cure worse than the disease. It is also very expensive — Florida already spends nearly $330 million each year incarcerating people who violated the conditions of their release.

This reform promises to both keep people on the right path and also save taxpayers’ money.

The third portion of this legislative package, introduced as HB 1259 by Rep. Spencer Roach and SB 1302 by Sen. Danny Burgess, fixes a loophole in the reforms passed in 2019 which auto-sealed at the state level a set of arrests that never led to a conviction. The Legislature recognized even minor brushes with the justice system can have lifelong negative impacts on a person’s ability to find work, housing, education and more. After these 2019 changes went into effect, it became apparent that arrest records the state deemed eligible for sealing were still accessible at the local level. HB 1259 and SB 1302 will ensure a path to seal these county records as well — giving people the genuine second chance they deserve.

Crime victims like me want to ensure that what happened to us never happens to anyone else. We also want those who exit the justice system to be given the tools to be better and do better than when they went in.

These three changes, which build upon historic bipartisan justice reform and are supported by Republicans and Democrats alike, are the right next step toward making all Floridians a lot safer.

___

Elliot Saunders lives in Tampa Bay, Florida and is a member of Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice, a network of 70,000 crime victims nationally, with 8,000 members in Florida.

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One comment

  • real

    January 24, 2022 at 9:46 am

    Please they want you to be all over the internet. If they have a negative opinion they will display you through domains. they will use it to isolate you on the streets.they will track through public records and display locations real or not.getting a low level offense you get put in a basket of mutt .

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