One year after Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed a measure allowing juveniles to have arrest records for felony charges expunged from their record, the Republican Governor gave his approval to this past Session’s version of the legislation.
The proposal (HB 195), signed Thursday, will broaden minors’ abilities to expunge their arrest records in Florida, opening the door to removing lesser felonies and multiple misdemeanors from their records.
Under the proposal, a juvenile may expunge felony arrests — except for forcible felonies — and multiple arrests from their record for completing a diversion program. Forcible felonies include crimes such as murder, rape and kidnapping, among others.
State law currently limits expungement solely to minors who complete a diversion program after a first-time misdemeanor arrest.
Winter Springs Republican Rep. David Smith sponsored the bill, carrying it both this Session and last Session, when DeSantis vetoed the measure. Gainesville Republican Sen. Keith Perry sponsored the Senate version of the legislation for the fourth consecutive year.
Lawmakers last year praised the measure without a single “no” vote. However, DeSantis vetoed the bill, citing public safety concerns.
“The unfettered ability to expunge serious felonies, including sexual battery, from a juvenile’s record may have negative impacts on public safety,” the veto letter said.
Lawmakers added the exemption for forcible felonies this Session to appease the concerns of DeSantis and the Florida Police Chiefs Association.
That was an easy compromise to make, said Florida Juvenile Justice Association Executive Director Christian Minor, whose organization proposed the legislation four years ago. The odds of a judge providing a diversion pathway to a violent offender are slim to none, proponents argued even before the change.
“It feels wonderful that these kids are going to have opportunities to overcome these mistakes and have a clean record,” Minor told Florida Politics.
For example, employers like day cares might want to know if an applicant was arrested on sexual assault charges, Perry said.
“I think that was a legitimate concern the Governor had, and I’m happy to have worked with him and get this thing done,” he added.
The legislation has fiscal and public safety implications, Perry said. Keeping people out of the criminal justice system will mean the state will have to spend less on prisons, and it will reduce the number of people who could possibly recidivate.
The bill isn’t just a criminal justice bill, Minor said. Minor called it a workforce development bill, grouping it with a topic that has been important to DeSantis and Republican legislative leadership the last two years.
Minor said his organization first wrote the bill when they were approached by someone who had lost their scholarship for college athletics and couldn’t find a job because of an arrest for a felony charge on his record. When he turned 21 and the arrest dropped off his record, he was able to go to college and get a job.
“It goes to show, if we are eliminating those barriers earlier on in a kid’s life, we can completely change the trajectory of them moving forward,” Minor said. “Ultimately, when kids have an arrest like this holding them back, what happens when they lose hope, and they’re trying to get jobs, and they go, ‘Well, I did everything right, I was told I had a second chance, but I’ve got an arrest holding me back?’ Oftentimes that can lead back to a life of crime.”
More than 26,000 kids will benefit under the measure if signed into law, according to a staff analysis. Those offenders, proponents note, will enjoy better job and educational opportunities without an arrest record.
Delvin Davis, regional policy analyst for criminal justice reform at the Southern Poverty Law Center Action Fund, in a statement called the measure common sense.
“It serves no purpose to have children go into adulthood with a criminal record. Numerous studies have shown that a child’s brain is still developing throughout their mid-20s. They can learn and grow and become rehabilitated.”
St. Petersburg Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes, a proponent of criminal justice reform who is term-limited and cannot seek re-election, tweeted that getting the bill passed it was “a long journey but the right one.”
DeSantis also signed accompanying legislation (HB 197) creating a public records exemption to accommodate the new law. Both measures will take effect July 1.
Juvenile diversion has been the Florida Juvenile Justice Association’s main effort the last four years. Next on the list could be to eliminate juvenile fees. There could also be a campaign to raise awareness about the diversion option.
Broadening record expunctions for juveniles could also be used as a trial for expanding expunctions for adults.
Jason Delgado contributed to this report.