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Bipartisan lawmakers tout reforms for Florida's criminal justice system. Will their proposals get heard?

‘These prisons are falling apart’


Dozens of advocates for criminal justice reforms gathered in a light rain on the steps of the Old Capitol building in Tallahassee on Tuesday to hear a bipartisan group of state lawmakers make a pitch for their legislative proposals and hopefully change the justice system for the better in Florida.

But that’s a tough path, given the GOP-controlled Legislature that has proven to be resistant to similar justice reform proposals over the last decade.

Hillsborough County Democratic Rep. Susan Valdés says that her staff has received hundreds of letters from the incarcerated that shed light on a myriad of issues plaguing the state’s correctional facilities — issues that she said “demand” the attention of lawmakers and taxpaying citizens.

“The concerns express range from inmate abuse, falsifying disciplinary reports, an unaddressed inmate request form, to lack of better medical treatment,” she said.

Tampa Democratic Rep. Dianne Hart has been one of the lead members of the Legislature over the past few sessions in pushing for more criminal justice reform proposals. She urged the crowd to lobby Republican lawmakers if they wanted these proposals to move forward during the current legislative session.

“I need you all knocking on Republican doors,” she said. “They’re the ones that won’t allow bills to be scheduled and to be heard. They’re the only ones who can. We have no power to make that happen. So I need you all to be knocking on their doors, calling them. Sending letters. There are thousands of us around this state working in the criminal justice field. We gotta band together to make this happen.”

Last fall lawmakers were presented with a detailed report on what it would cost to modernize the state’s prisons system, with financial estimates from the global consulting firm KPMG estimating to run between $6 and nearly $12 billion to repair buildings and construct new facilities, with hundreds of millions more needed to pay for staffing.

“These Florida prisons are falling apart,” Valdés said. “They’re in such poor conditions. The doors and windows are corroding, and the roofs are deteriorating.”

Valdes, Hart and Central Florida Republican House member Paula Stark spoke about the bills that they are most passionate about, and hope they will be put on the agenda in various committees as the session moves in its third week.

Here is a listing of those bills mentioned this morning:

GOP House Rep. Paula Stark discussing her bills in front of a crowd in Tallahassee’s state Capitol on Jan. 23, 2024 (photo credit: Mitch Perry)

HB 829 – Autism Spectrum Disorder Training for Law Enforcement Officers, sponsored by Stark

The bill “is dealing with training our law enforcement officers on how to deal with autistic individuals and make sure that everyone is safe because if they know what they’re looking for and they know how to address them properly then there’s a lot less 1) dangerous incidents, and 2) some of them would never go to jail either because they do get arrested, and also protect them from officers,” Stark said. “It prevents lawsuits and people having to deal with those types of issues out of those incidents.”

HB 881 – Restorative Justice, sponsored by Stark

“It is a victims bill,” Stark said. “A lot of times we talk about our offenders, and they do need help and these victims will have the opportunity to ask to be able to talk to the offender and then they can have some kind of peace and understanding of what has happened…it helps with the healing process with both sides so everybody can move forward with a little bit more healthy understanding and attitude.”

Dianne Hart mentioned three bills that she is sponsoring:

HB 233 Treatment of Offenders

Hart refers to this as the “Basic Rights of Inmates” bill, and it calls for all Florida correctional institutions to have air conditioning (there are two other bills filed in the House and Senate that do that as well – HB 191 filed by Jacksonville Democratic Rep. Angie Nixon in the House and SB 296 filed in the Senate by Jacksonville Democratic Sen. Tracie Davis). It also calls for allowing inmates a minimum of 20 minutes to finish their meals.

There has been a push over the past year to have the state begin to air condition their correctional facilities (the majority of them are not), but Hart said Tuesday that’s not going to happen this year.

“Just a couple of weeks ago I heard our Secretary [of Corrections] say, ‘there will be no air conditioning. That’s not a priority,” she said, quoting Department of Corrections Secretary Ricky Dixon. “He said it’s not a priority. There are other things at the top of the pole.”

HB 235 – Criminal Rehabilitation

This is Hart’s “gain time” bill that calls for allowing non-violent offenders to reduce their mandatory time served from 85% to 65% through their successful completion of academic and other learning courses while incarcerated. She’s filed a version of this bill every year that she’s served in the Legislature since 2019, but it’s been opposed by law enforcement and thus has never received a committee hearing.

That’s despite a 2019 report from the Criminal Justice Estimating Conference predicting that five years after lowering the threshold to 65% for non-violent offenders, the state would see a reduction of 7,266 inmate beds and cost savings of $441 million.

HB 237  Pregnant Women in Prison

Dubbed “Ava’s Law” after a pregnant woman who was booked into the Alachua County Jail in 2021 and then gave premature birth to a baby named Ava in jail who was taken to a nearby hospital and died, this legislation passed in 112-2 on the House floor last year — but never moved in the Senate. The 2024 version has yet to be heard.

Florida Legislature, Prison Reform, Criminal Justice, Florida Phoenix


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