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Florida First Step Act Could Bring Major Criminal Justice Reforms

February 19th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Criminal Justice advocates are pushing a sweeping reform package aimed at reducing criminal sentences and helping rehabilitate prisoners instead of simply punishing them.

The Florida First Step act is modeled after a recently passed Federal law.

Florida prisons house nearly 100,000 inmates, costing taxpayers $2.6 billion a year.

Most inmates will be released within 5 years.

“That’s 85,000 people back out on the streets,” said Senator Keith Perry. “Are they going to be good citizens or are they going to recidivate?”

The problem, criminal justice reformers say, is that Florida’s system focuses more on punishment, not rehabilitation.

To shift the focus, some lawmakers are pushing the Florida First Step Act.

Among many changes, it would give judges discretion to divert from mandatory minimum sentences in non violent drug offenses and offer up to 60 days off sentences if they learn a trade of get an education.

“These are best practices from around the country that Florida would now be implementing and I think that’s all very positive,” said bill sponsor Senator Jeff Brandes.

A similar reform for federal prisons passed at the end of last year.

It’s the reason Matthew Charles, who was sentenced to a mandatory minimum of 35 years for possession crack cocaine, is a free man today.

The Federal First step act  allowed judges to consider Charles’ behavior and efforts to change when deciding whether to release him early.

“Something was done on my behalf, but there’s thousands or hundreds of thousands of others, that nothing is being done on their behalf because they don’t have that voice,” said Charles.

However, Governor Ron DeSantis, who voted for the Federal law as a Congressman, is hesitant to support the initiative on the state level.

“The character of the crimes are a lot different. I mean, the Federal tends to be drug trafficking, there’s a lot of white collar [crimes],” said DeSantis. “The state you have a lot more just violent crimes.”

Similar reforms have failed in year’s past, but supporters hope the passage of the National First Step Act will give the legislation the push it needs.

The Florida First Step Act hasn’t been put on the agenda for any committees as of now.

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Drug Sentence Reforms Clear First Committee Stops

February 19th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Two bills aimed at reforming sentencing for certain drug offenses passed their first Senate committee stop this morning.

The first would change the way a sentence is determined for possession of pills by basing thresholds on the number of pills instead of their weight.

The second bill would give immunity from prosecution to those who report drug overdoses.

Sponsor Senator Jeff Brandes says the two reforms are one of the first steps in a larger push for criminal justice reform.

“Whether it be the bill that moves from weights and looks at actual dosage units or the Good Samaritan Act, which allows people to be free of prosecution if they’re acting in good faith to help somebody who is a friend who is experiencing an overdose, that to me is another step in the right direction as we move towards criminal justice reform,” said Brandes.

Brandes is also sponsoring a number of other criminal justice reforms this session, including the Florida First Step Act.

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Governor Wants Space Force to Come to Florida

February 19th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Tuesday was space day at the state Capitol and Governor Ron DeSantis used the occasion to call on the President to locate the command center for his proposed Space Force in Florida.

“I think we have obviously facilities, such as Cape Canaveral, where that would be a natural fit. I think that will be very good for the state of Flordia, but I also think given our history in space, given all the resources that are now in Florida, I think it would make a lot of strategic sense to do that,” said DeSantis.

As a precedent, Florida is already home to the Army’s Central and Southern command centers.

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Governor Defends Teacher Bonuses Over Pay Raise

February 19th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Governor Ron DeSantis defended his proposal to offer bonuses to high performing teachers Tuesday afternoon.

The Governor’s plan would offer $9,000 bonuses to as many as 45,000 teachers in the state.

The state’s largest teachers union argues the money would be better spent on raising teacher pay overall.

DeSantis says the bonuses guarantee teachers will actually see the money.

“I’m not necessarily opposed to doing that, in terms of higher salaries. Different districts have done it different ways, but that ultimately is a decision that is negotiated collectively,” said DeSantis. “Our bonus program doesn’t involve that and it goes basically straight from the state to the teacher and I think that’s a good way to do it.”

The Governor’s plan would allocate $423 million for bonuses under the state’s Best and Brightest Program.

It would also remove college entrance test scores from being a factor in determining whether teachers qualify for the bonus.

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PBA Responds to “Not Our Governor” Billboards With Message of Its Own

February 19th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Governor Ron DeSantis has been in office just over a month and is getting generally high marks from both political insiders and the general public.

However, a civil rights group has been protesting the Governor since the day he was sworn in, which has prompted a police union to stick up for the governor.

Two billboards critical of Ron DeSantis, sponsored by the Dream Defenders, popped up in the state Capitol shortly after he took office.

Both depict the Governor as a puppet of corporations.

We emailed the Dream Defenders with questions about the billboards, but they didn’t respond, but they did have plenty to say when they watched the inauguration.

“Ron DeSantis has made it very clear that he is deeply in bed with some of the corporations that are harming people in this state,” said Rachael Gilmer, a member of the Dream Defenders.

The anti-DeSantis billboards didn’t sit well with Florida’s Police Benevolent Association.

“Governor DeSantis has come in and he’s been a really good Governor across the board for everyone,” said Matt Puckett with the Florida PBA. “We saw the billboard that said he’s not our Governor, and well, he’s everybody’s Governor, and we wanted to make that known.”

During the 2018 election, The Dream Defenders pushed candidates to sign what they called freedom papers, which also irked the law enforcement group.

“Law enforcement shouldn’t exist. Prisons shouldn’t exist,” said Puckett. “So we took offense to that,”

We sent pictures of both billboards to the Governor’s Press Office.

Their response: The Governor will always come down on the side of law enforcement.

We caught up with Lt. Governor Jeannette Nunez.

She hadn’t seen the Dream Defenders bill boards.

“You know, I think Ron DeSantis has shown he’s the Governor for all Floridians and if people want to take out ads, that’s their preoperative, but we’re not worried about nonsense like that,” said Nunez. “We’re worried about leading the state of Florida in the right direction, which is what we are doing.”

Until the middle of March, the Governor is likely to see this billboard on his ride home each night.

The Dream Defenders did endorse Andrew Gillum, who fell about 33,000 votes shy of winning against now Governor DeSantis.

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New Lawmakers, New Menu for Capitol Restaurant

February 19th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

A restaurant in the shadow of the Capitol has a power menu, with items named after those who govern.

FSU President John Thrasher has a power-bowl salad, several state senators have burgers, as does the Lt. Governor.

The tradition takes place almost every election, but once you are out of office, so goes your name from the menu.

Lt. Governor Jeannette Nunez told us she not had planned to stay in office.

“But that didn’t happen. You know when the governor called me and asked me to join him on the ticket. Here I am and now I have a sandwich named after me, so I guess that’s one of the perks of deciding to come on board with Governor DeSantis,” said Nunez.

“Everybody wants the event for life, the item for life. When you don’t get reelected, or term out, bam. You’re done, so, thank you for being here,” said Andrews Restaurant owner Andy Reiss.

The menu was inspired by a New York deli that names dishes after Broadway plays and actors.

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NRA Wants to Give New Ag Commissioner a Chance

February 18th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

After 291 people were improperly issued concealed carry licenses by a previous administration, Florida’s new Commissioner of Agriculture vowed to fix the program.

While the NRA initially opposed the new commissioner, the organization now wants to give her a chance.

Both the NRA and Fried are toning down their support for moving the concealed carry licensing program out of the Department of Agriculture.

In a newsletter former NRA President Marion Hammer said the program should stay put, but called on Fried to focus on fixing quote ‘real problems’ with the program, warning 1.9 million license holders will be watching.

“There’s nothing wrong with saying that you’re going to fix things that are wrong and we suspect that she’s going to do that. Trying to fix imaginary problems though, that’s another thing,” said Hammer.

Hammer says one problem that should be addressed to improve concealed carry permitting is an issue where people with out of state arrests are blocked from acquiring a permit, even in some cases where they were never convicted of a crime.

After Fried took office, Hammer had suggested moving the licensing program to the Chief Financial Officer, while Fried supported moving it to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

“It’s irresponsible to just pick it up and move it to another department just because it’s a Democrat that’s been elected,” Fried said in January.

Commissioner Fried now says her main priority is to look at recommendations from an internal report and a separate inspector general’s report concerning the licensing program.

The NRA is also supportive of Fried picking Stephen Hurm to head the Division of Licensing.

Hurm is the husband of gubernatorial candidate Gwen Graham.

“We don’t expect to see any abuse of power out of him, nor would we expect that he would allow any,” said Hammer.

While both Fried and Hammer have toned down the rhetoric, Hammer says the two have not been in direct communication.

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Ted Bundy Movie Becomes Available Later this Year.

February 18th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Serial Killer Ted Bundy was executed 30 years ago this past January, but his story continues to fascinate people of all ages.

He’s the subject of at least three new documentaries and now a new movie staring Zach Efron.

Thousands flocked to Park City Utah for this years Sundance Film Festival.

120-plus movies were screened.

The Hollywood Reporter named the new Ted Bundy movie, as one of the top ten movies to see.

Hundreds showed up for an 8:30 Sunday morning premier.

The title comes from the reading of Bundy’s death sentence.

“You are extremely wicked, shockingly evil, and vile,” Judge Edward Coward said in July of 1979.

The movie is surprisingly violence free.

This scene from the trailer shows Zach Efron, who plays Bundy dead on most of the time, lifting a crow bar, but we never see the woman being hit.

Director Joe Berlinger has been taking some heat from glorifying Bundy.

“This movie is not a catalog of his killings,” said Berlinger. “In fact there is very little violence in the movie. It’s about deception and betrayal, and I think people need to understand how one becomes a victim to a serial killer who is using charm to lure you to his crimes.”

Some liberties were taken in the film like in the scene where the infamous picture of Ted Bundy when his murder indictment was read was taken.

In the movie it shows a media circus watching the whole process, but in reality, there were just a few people in the room.

Instead of violence, the movie is told from the perspective of Liz Kloepfer, Bundy’s girlfriend of six years.

“You know, as a father of daughters, I want to send out that message to people that, you know, before you deeply trust somebody, they better earn your trust,” said Berlinger.

The movie has a surprise ending in which Bundy makes a dramatic confession to his once girlfriend, but revealing any more would be a spoiler.

The movie becomes available for streaming later this year.

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More Marijuana Research Coming to Florida

February 15th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Two years ago, Florida lawmakers created a marijuana research board at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, but the project has been dead in the water because of inaction by the Department of Health.

That’s about to change though, under the new Governor.

In the two years that the Medical Marijuana Research and Education Board has been in existence, it’s given out just two grants totaling $150,000.

It’s not the board’s fault.

Last year lawmakers authorized $1.75 million.

Dr. Tom Sellers is the board’s director.

“We were supposed to be supported from funding from the state, which was pointed out earlier, through a collection of fees from the growers,” said Sellers.

The problem is that the Department of Health didn’t adopt rules to make the funding available to the board.

“For year two, we did not receive any money,” said Sellers.

The Department of Health has been under constant pressure from lawmakers, who say it deliberately slowed down all things marijuana.

“So, I think this is a little bit of collateral damage within that discussion,” said Moffitt Legislative Affairs Director Jamie Wilson.

In an exclusive interview, Senate President Bill Galvano told us that’s about to change.

“Well, I think we need research,” said Galvano. “There is a dearth of research.”

What’s changed is that Ron DeSantis brings a who new attitude about marijuana to the Governor’s Office.

“We have a commitment that the department is moving forward and taking the necessary steps, so we’ve included the funding, the $1.8 million that was at issue, and hopefully we will have more research,” said Galvano.

Researchers caution that if lawmakers want information, they’ll have to provide a steady stream of funding.

The research board is made up of researchers from five hospitals across the state.

This past year, it planned to award four research projects, but had to put them on hold because of the lack of funding.

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Teachers Union Criticizes ‘Equal Opportunity Scholarship’

February 15th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Governor Ron DeSantis unveiled a plan this morning to clear a backlog of students on a waiting list for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship.

DeSantis is asking the Legislature to create a new “Equal Opportunity Scholarship” funded by general revenue to cover the scholarship for 14,000 students currently on a waiting list.

DeSantis defended his proposal to send public dollars to private schools, arguing if taxpayers foot the bill, it is public education.

The State’s largest teachers union disagrees.

“It’s a false notion, because we want the same regulations. If they’re going to be public schools let them have the same regulations. Let them test the same. Let them have the same qualified teachers. Let the understand the same budgetary constraints that we have. So that everybody is working from the same starting line. You’re trying to advantage one to disadvantage the other and that’s not fair,” said FEA President Fedrick Ingram.

At $6,500 a student, the total cost for the new scholarship could be as much as $90 to $100 million.

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Solving Florida’s Teacher Shortage: Bonuses or Pay Raise?

February 15th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Governor Ron DeSantis wants to overhaul the state’s Best and Brightest teacher bonus program, by nearly doubling its funding and changing how teachers qualify, but the state’s largest teachers union says expanding incentives won’t solve the state’s teacher shortage.

Florida needs to hire 2,200 teachers.

Governor Ron DeSantis hopes overhauling the state’s Best and Brightest Program could help fill the gap.

The Best and Brightest Program was originally passed in 2015.

It was supported by then House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who now heads the Department of Education.

Andrea Messina with the Florida School Boards Associations says one major issue with the program in its current form is that it uses college entrance exam scores to determine whether a teacher qualifies for a bonus.

“You know test results don’t necessarily reflect effectiveness in the classroom,” said Messina.

DeSantis wants to do away with that practice.

“To me that didn’t make sense, you’re already in a professional setting,” said DeSantis.

DeSantis wants to nearly double the overall funding for the bonus program, from $234 million to $423 million.

As many as 45,000 teachers in the state could receive $9,000 bonuses under DeSantis’ proposal.

However, the Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, says bonuses aren’t the answer.

“To insist that these merit pay schemes or bonus schemes are going to do something to attract and retain teachers is a fallacy,” said Union President Fedrick Ingram.

With a median salary of $48,000 a year, Florida ranks 45th in the nation for teacher pay.

Instead, Ingram says a pay raise would be a better use of the funds.

“A bonus package does nothing to impact teachers being paid 45th in the nation and we know that and the Governor knows that,” said Ingram.

Now it falls on the Legislature to make DeSantis’ proposal a reality, though no bills have been filed to make the change so far.

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House Considers Amendment 4 Implementation

February 14th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Lawmakers are still debating how to register more than a million newly eligible voters following the passage of Amendment 4.

Two House Committees heard from prosecutors, elections supervisors, clerks of courts and state agency heads Thursday, to learn what issues need to be addressed.

Amendment Four automatically restores the voting rights of all felons in the state who have completed their sentence, excluding those convicted of murder or sex crimes.

It’s considered the largest expansion of voting rights since the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

While qualified felons began registering January 8th, lawmakers say some basic questions need answers, like what is murder and what is a sex crime?

“Felony sexual offenses I can tell you there is a wide array of offenses that people of good faith can differ over about whether they should or should not be included,” said Representative Paul Renner.

While lawmakers believe those questions can be answered relatively quickly, other issues may take more time.

For instance, there is currently no single place a person or agency can go to definitively find out if a person has completed their sentence.

Renner says creating one could streamline the roll out of amendment 4.

“Where someone can walk out of prison or walk out of their probation office when their sentence is complete and have that certificate and everybody sees that across all the agencies that are involved… I think is where we want to go,” said Renner.

Clemency attorney Reggie Garcia says a more urgent issue is defining what constitutes a completed sentence.

“I think where the ambiguity comes is whether there’s unpaid restitution or court costs,” said Garcia.

Prosecutors say until lawmakers clear up the ambiguity surrounding Amendment 4, they have no intention of prosecuting people who mistakenly think they qualify and register to vote.

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Parkland: One Year Later

February 14th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

The first anniversary of the Parkland massacre was marked with a moment of silence at the State Capitol, where one anguished father continues to push lawmakers to make schools safer.

The bell tolled 17 times, once for each parkland victim.

Out of deference to the families, Florida’s political leadership was silent.

Inside, well wishers paid their respects to Andrew Pollack, whose daughter Meadow died in the shooting.

The anguished father says the one year anniversary is no different than any other day since her death.

“For today to be any different, it’s not. Every day is the same pain from when you wake up to when you go to sleep,” said Pollack.

He applauds the Governor’s call for a grand jury investigation.

“That’s going to lead to show multitudes of incompetence in the Broward School district,” said Pollack.

Last year lawmakers mandated Fortify Florida, a school related incident reporting app.

Since it went live, 278 tips have been called in.
This year’s legislation will require the Fortify Florida app be installed on every school device students use.
“I fight the people who are just gonna focus on gun control,” said Pollack.

Pollack also supports arming teachers, which was the number one recommendation of the School Safety Commission.

“You know, those are the same people who don’t want to arm the right people at schools. I fight them,” said Pollack.

Asked if he believes his daughter would still be alive if teachers had been armed, he responded, “One hundred percent.”

Flags at the Capitol were at half staff Thursday.

The Governor proclaimed February 14th as Marjorie Stoneman Douglas Remembrance Day, and the Capitol will remain lit with Orange lights through Sunday night to honor Parkland’s victims.

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Momentum Shifting to Arm Teachers

February 13th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

On the first anniversary of the deadly school shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglass High School in Parkland, momentum is building for allowing teachers to be armed.

688 trained school personnel have qualified to carry guns under the guardian program.  It was passed in the wake of the deadly valentines day shooting last year. They are protecting students in 25 of Flordia’s 67 counties. Dennis Baxley says lessons were learned in Parkland.

“That first three minutes of exposure when something is becoming an incident, if you don’t act right then, if you haven’t empower somebody there, then it could get worse, much worse. A massacre” fears Baxley.

Lawmakers excluded classroom teachers from being guardians after pressure from then Governor Rick Scott, but Scott is gone and the 15 member commission set up after the shooting has voted to arm teachers. 

“Signify by raising your hand.” The vote was 14-1, but the lone no vote later voted to accept the entire report. 

Senate President Bill Galvano says the commission is working exactly as intended.

“And that commission had a diverse makeup, including families of victims, and law enforcement. And a lot of folks changed their views on the guardian program going into it.”

Right now, a sheriff must first offer the guardian program, and then it’s up to the school board to accept. But a proposed change would flip that. If a school board wants to have armed teachers, the sheriff would have to make it happen.

The guardian legislation is likely to be among the first bills to make it to the Senate floor when lawmakers meet next month.

The Guardian legislation was approved by the Senate Education Committee on a 5-3 party line vote. Florida Democrats, who oppose arming teachers, are using the anniversary to highlight more than a dozen bills, including universal background checks and banning assault style rifles.

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Violence in Minority Communities Overlooked

February 13th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

State Representative Shevrin Jones says violence in minority black and brown communities has been overlooked in the rush to make schools safer after the Parkland massacre. Jones is asking the Governor to set up a commission, much like what was set up after the school shooting to study the problem. He says the violence in their neighborhoods is having a traumatic effect on the kids who live there.

“You have children who are looking at homicides on their streets and are going to school with that same visualization in their minds. On a daily basis, especially in the minority community. So they are leaving school  and walking  by the blood on the street that they just saw the night before. That’s trauma, and these are the things that need to be addressed” says Jones.

Jones says the problem has been around long before Parkland, but it was the response that he says was the conversation starter for minority communities.

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