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Judges Highlight Importance of Justice Access After Hurricanes

May 20th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

With just 12 days remaining before the start of the 2019 Hurricane Season, the Commission on Access to Civil Justice was briefed on a litany of problems created for the courts and those who use them during Hurricane Michael.

They included the inability to get a quick hearing for divorced parents with a prohibition of taking children further than 50 miles from the other parent, unusable courthouses, a lack of working technology, and more.

Justice Jorge Labarga, chair of the access commission said those charged with a crime got a hearing within the 24 hours as required by law.

“It’s important that people who get arrested during those days, the process continues to exist, because that’s how people know the rule of law is in place. It’s very easy for tempers to flare during those times and things happen, so we need to make sure that people know a judge will hear your case immediately,” said Labarga.

In two counties, Bay and Jackson, full courts services were down for as many as 19 days.

Volunteer staff and judges from nearby counties helped fill in as judges and their staffs recovered.

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Criminal Justice Reform Package Passes House

April 29th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

The Florida House approved a criminal justice reform package that raises the amount someone must steal to be considered a felon Monday.

It also provides opportunities to put those who have served their time back to work, and it gives victims more time to report crimes and apply for help.

The sweeping legislation makes changes to more than 75 areas of Flordia statutes, but lawmakers are also send the message they are not getting soft on crime.

“This bill does noting to take away from our public safety. It does nothing to disturb the 50 year low in our crime rate,” said House Sponsor Rep. Paul Renner.

Democrats hope this is just the beginning of a multi-year effort.

“There are people sitting in prison cells, doing seven, eight, nine years for drivers license suspensions,” said Rep. Dianne Hart.

One of the differences between the House and the Senate is when is stealing something become a felony.

Right now, someone stealing $300 worth of merchandise can be charged with a felony.

The House bill raises the minimum level to a $1,000 dollars.

The Senate and Florida Retail Federation want it set at $750.

“Theft is wrong. We all realize that. The biggest questions is at what level is somebody going to be branded a felon for the rest of their lives,” said House Co-Sponsor Rep. Byron Donalds.

There is good news for victims.

Debbie Ortise of Tampa turned to drugs after being assaulted.

No one told her there was counseling available, but this legislation gives victims up to three years to seek help.

“I’m very lucky to be here today. And I am sure there are other survivors who have lost their lives or have ended up on the wrong side of the law because there were no services available to them because they had unresolved trauma,” said Ortise.

The law also gives crime victims five days to report a crime, up from three.

The legislation eases restrictions on felons applying for professional licenses.

Right now someone who cut hair in prison for five years would not be allowed to count those hours toward being a barber on the outside.

Under the legislation those hours would count.

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Crime Victims Call for Criminal Justice Reform

April 2nd, 2019 by Jake Stofan

This week is crime victims rights week at the state Capitol.

350 victims of crime were in the Capitol building asking for more victims recourses Tuesday, but part of the message they’re sending to lawmakers is a criminal justice system that focuses on rehabilitation over punishment.

One by one the members of the crowd shouted the names of loved ones who have been lost to violent crime.

Victims say untreated trauma leads many victims down dark paths.

“I had to reach a breaking point and almost lost my life to a suicide attempt before I was actually able to get that help,” said Deborah Ortiz, a survivor of sexual abuse and domestic violence.

Survivors of the Pulse Night Club Shooting and the Parkland shooing were among the crowd.

Patricia Oliver, whose son Joaquin lost his life in the Parkland shooting, echoed the call for more victims resources.

“We need to concentrate on this issue, that is trauma recovery,” said Oliver.

Victims are asking for lawmakers to extend the time a crime can be reported from 72 hours to five days.

They also want to extend the time they can apply for victim compensation funds from 1 to 5 years.

Part of the message victims are sending is the need for a more rehabilitative criminal justice system, arguing many criminals are victims themselves.

Dr. LaDonna Butler, a victim of sexual assault, who is now a mental health professional, says the two pronged approach could prevent victims from becoming perpetuators and put criminals back on the right track.

“We need to be able to stop that flow, so that people can get services in a way that is responsive to their needs before becoming perpetrators of violence themselves,” said Butler.

Agnes Furey’s daughter and grandson were both murdered in 1998.

She argues the best way to prevent future crime, is to break the cycle of violence through rehabilitation.

“If somebody cannot work, cannot function, cannot meet their Maslow’s needs, their going to do what they know how to do,” said Furey.

Victims are hopeful their message is getting through to lawmakers.

One thing is certain, they’ll be back each year until they get the change they’re looking for.

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Hundreds of Criminal Justice Reformers Take to State Capitol

March 13th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Reforming sentencing laws and helping former inmates find a job was the goal of about 250 people demonstrating at the state Capitol Wednesday.

Lawmakers are exploring ways to keep people out of prison in an effort to cut costs.

For the second day in a row hundreds rallied at the state capitol demanding criminal justice reform.

“Currently there are almost 100,000 people in prison. We are locking up too many people for far far too long. We’ve got to fix that,” said Shalini Goel Agarwal with the SPLC Action Fund.

Audrey Hudgins’ son has been one of those inmates for 22 years and will remain in prison for the rest of his life.

“My son and our family are still living this daily nightmare,” said Hudgins.

He got the mandatory minimum sentence for armed robbery, even though no one was hurt.

“And there was nothing the judge could do about it. Her hands were tied,” said Hudgins.

It’s stories like Hudgins’ that have advocates like Judy Thompson calling for parole to come back to the state.

“We all change over time. There’s no assessment in place to determine whether or not we can be an asset to the outer society,” said Thompson.

Some Justice reforms are already gaining traction this year, including a bill that would raise the felony theft threshold from $300 to $1,500.

Bill sponsor, Senator Jeff Brandes says the need for reform goes beyond the emotional argument. There’s a financial crisis at the Department of Corrections.

“Our prisons are literally at the breaking point financially, facility wise. Our guards, our wardens are begging for more resources,” said Brandes.

Dozens of States have already taken some of the steps being proposed here in Florida and haven’t crime rates increase.

Other changes reformers are pushing include ending the practice of suspending drivers licenses for non driving offenses and preventing felony convictions from preventing former inmates from getting licensed in certain trades.

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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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Criminal Justice Reform May Be Coming in 2019

January 31st, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Florida’s criminal justice system might see some major changes this Legislative session.

Some top Florida officials have expressed support for some reforms that have been shot down in years past.

State Senator Jeff Brandes says the time for criminal justice reform in Florida is now.

“As bad as the criminal justice system and the prison system was last year, it’s worse this year as far as funding, budget and personnel,” said Brandes.

Part of Brandes and other criminal justice reformers’ approach to reducing the strain on the system, is is to reduce sentences for certain low level crimes and find alternatives to prison for some offenders.

“Are people better served in community supervision, are people better served in mental health and substance abuse treatment programs,” said Chelsea Murphy with Right on Crime.

Many bills sponsored by Brandes in years past have failed to cross the finish line.

One example, raising the felony theft threshold from $300 to $1,500, but that proposal now has support from Governor Ron DeSantis.

“I don’t want some 15-year-old kid to do something stupid, but doesn’t mean he’s a bad kid and then end up with a felony because he stole a bicycle or something that cost $305,” said DeSantis.

Florida’s Attorney General Ashely Moody also says the state needs to improve its criminal justice system.

Her focus is primarily on mental health.

That’s the direction some other criminal justice groups say the state should really focus on.

“I think that’s where the reformers are missing it. They’re trying to play around on the sentencing stuff,” said Barney Bishop with Florida Smart Justice Alliance. “Don’t do that. The core problem is two issues. Substance abuse and mental health.”

Some of Brandes’ other proposed reforms include, giving judges discretion in mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, allowing courts the option to set no bail for low flight risk offenders who can’t afford to pay and allowing prisoners who enroll in educational programs to have up to 60 days removed from their sentence.

With the passage of Amendment 11 in November, lawmakers will now have the option of applying sentencing changes retroactively.

Which means new laws could immediately impact those behind bars, not just future convictions.

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Stand Your Ground Law Faces New Criticism After Parking Lot Shooting

July 23rd, 2018 by Mike Vasilinda
In 2017, State lawmakers changed Stand Your Ground to require prosecutors prove someone didn’t fear for their life when asserting stand your ground instead of the other way around.
Now a deadly shooting in a Clearwater parking lot is renewing calls for the law’s repeal.
Shifting the burden of proof in stand your ground cases was supported by both defense attorney’s and public defenders.
“We want to make sure people accused of a crime have as many rights as possible,” said President of the Florida Criminal Defense Attorney Association, Richard Greenberg,
Greenberg likened the shooting by 47-year-old Michael Drejk to the shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, calling Drejk a parking space vigilante.
Surveillance video shows Drejk getting pushed down.
Now prosecutors must decide if he really feared for his life.
“That’s as very subjective point. Whether the person himself, him or her self, feels that they are in a reasonably, imminent danger,” said Greenberg.
Since it’s inception, black Democrats have continually pushed to get rid of stand your ground.
They say the law affects their constituents more than anyone else’s.
Freshman State Representative Ramon Alexander voted no on changes to the law.
Now he’s calling for its total repeal.
“Stand Your Ground is a bad law, and Stand Your Ground needs to be repealed. Point blank and simple,” said Alexander.
Tallahassee based prosecutor Jack Campbell supports a person’s rights to defend themselves, but says the law has resulted in injustice.
“We’re having far too many shootings,  We’re having far too many people who are dying without any consequence at all,” said Campbell.
Prosecutors are meeting this week in South West Flordia.
Campbell says no one there is second guessing how this case will turn out.
The NRA declined to comment on this story.
Changing the burden of proof in stand your ground cases with the group’s number one priority in 2017.

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Criminal Justice Experts Say Lawmakers Will Need to Be Careful With New Crime Data

April 23rd, 2018 by Jake Stofan
Florida will begin consolidating crime data from multiple agencies including prisons, law enforcement and courts all in one easy to access data base.
The goal is to get a better understanding of criminal trends in the state to help inform policy decisions, but some criminal justice experts say interpreting those numbers will be a challenge in itself.
Crime data in Florida is scattered among many agencies, making it hard to see the big picture.
“So it [the data] might as well be at times, nowhere,” said Representative Chris Sprowls.
The new system will require local law enforcement, clerk of the courts, state attorneys, public defenders, local jails and the Department of Corrections to submit statistics to the Florida Department of law enforcement.
Lawmakers call it the gold standard in crime reporting.
Florida has the third highest prison population in the country, costing $2.3 billion a year.
The hope is the new data will help reduce the amount of prisoners by helping lawmakers make better decisions.
Barney Bishop with the Florida Smart Justice Alliance says while he believes the data will be useful, lawmakers shouldn’t take the first year’s reports at face value.
“The reality of it is, is that academics are not going to be able to look at that data until you have two or three years so they can look at what trends are,” said Bishop. “But the most important issue is going to be is the criminal justice system really blind? I mean, is there discrimination that’s going on?”
State Attorney of Florida’s 2nd Judicial Circuit, Jack Campbell agrees, adding lawmakers also need to be cautious in the way the interpret the data.
“We want to make sure that we’re counting it right, that we’re defining things right so that when we make conclusions, they’re sound and they’re not just perversions,” said Campbell.
The new law take effect on July first of this year.
Agencies that fail to comply with the new reporting requirements will be ineligible for state funding for 5 years.
The law takes effect on July 1st of this year. The data will be made available to the public on FDLE’s website.

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Lawmakers Unveil New Plan to Consolidate Crime Data in the State

January 31st, 2018 by Jake Stofan

Florida lawmakers have unveiled new legislation aimed at better collecting crime statistics throughout the state.

Currently lawmakers say information is hard to consolidate from agency to agency and even country to county. The new legislation would require law enforcement agencies, clerks of court, state attorneys, public defenders, county jail operators, and the Department of Corrections to issue weekly statistics to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

FDLE will be required to organize the data and make it available to the public.

Representative Chris Sprowls says the data will help lawmakers draft better informed criminal justice policies.

“Right now we have very very little information. Even basic things like recidivism,” said Sprowls. “What we have in the way of data is woefully insufficient and in order to have a full picture of what the criminal justice system looks like and how we can improve it we need as much information as possible and right now we don’t have it.”

If passed the Legislation would cost the state $1.75 million dollars to implement.

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New Criminal Justice Report Takes Aim at Influencing Florida

January 16th, 2018 by Jake Stofan
Criminal Justice Advocates are applauding the release of a new report looking into criminal justice reform, in hopes it will help pass Legislation in Florida.
The report was published by the Academy for Justice. It includes findings from 120 top criminal justice scholars throughout the country.
Unlike most scholarly articles, it’s written in layman’s terms and provides policy suggestions to fix the wide variety of issues explored in the report.
Vikrant Reddy with the Charles Koch Institute says Florida is a key state for reform, not only because of its size, but because of its conservative demographics.
“They say things like, ‘Gosh well if tough on crime Florida can do this, we can do it too.’ That’s why for so many people in the advocacy community, Florida is the great white whale,” said Reddy. “You want to reach Florida. You want to see change in Florida, because it make such a big difference in the way people across the country talk about the issue.”
You can find the report at acadamyforjustice.org.

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State Legislators Pushing Major Juvenile Justice Reform

December 5th, 2017 by Jake Stofan

Florida prosecutes more children as adults than any other state, but new Legislation would reform he way the state handles non-violent offenses committed by minors.

 

 

Miguel Rodriguez was sentenced as an adult for breaking into a home at the age of 15.

 

“We thought this abandoned house was abandoned and nobody was going to be hurt by what we were doing,” said Rodriguez.

After breaking his parole at the age of 21, he was sent to prison for three years.

 

“I was arrested for a technical violation where I was at work past curfew,” said Rodriguez.

Since 2009 14,000 kids like Miguel, some as young as 10-years-old, have been indicted as adults in Florida.

The new legislation would prohibit children under 14 from being prosecuted as adults for non-violent crimes. It would also take away the power of prosecutors to directly send 14 and 15-year-olds to adult court.

 

“Kids are going to make mistakes,” said PTA Committee Member Dawn Steward. “Should they pay for the rest of their life because of a non-violent crime or a non-violent issue?”

The Campaign for Youth Justice found Minors held in adult prisons are 36 times more likely to commit suicide compared to those in juvenile detention centers.

A study found 80% of Floridians believe juveniles convicted of a crime as an adult should serve their time in juvy until they turn 18.

The proposal would require juveniles serving in adult prisons be segregated from adult prisoners.

Senate Sponsor Bobby Powell says lowering the amount of minors prosecuted as adults will also help the economy.

 

“It definitely is a blemish on their record and makes it more difficult for them to get a job,” said Powell.

The Legislation would also prevent children from losing their right to vote as a result of being prosecuted as an adult.

The proposal also gives judges more say in prosecuting children as adults and require them to justify why adult penalties are necessary when a minor is given an adult sentence.

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Lawmakers Tout Criminal Justice Reform Legislation for 2018

November 15th, 2017 by Jake Stofan
A bi-partisan coalition of state lawmakers and criminal justice organizations touted new Legislation aimed at improving the state’s sentencing laws this afternoon.
The press conference discussed three bills filed which would give judges the option to of handing out a sentence lower than the mandatory minimums set for certain drug crimes.
It’s a luxury already granted to prosecutors.
“I think that that shows you the kind of dedication you’re seeing and the kind of leadership you’re seeing on this issue. When you have the presiding officers from both of these chambers for the last many years stepping up and saying it’s okay to talk about criminal justice reform, it’s okay to be bold on these ideas,” said Senator Jeff Brandes.
Legislation has also been filed that would end the practice of suspending drivers licenses when a person fails to pay a fine because they can’t afford it.
Another bill would raise the monetary value of stolen property to qualify as a felony from $300, to $1,500.

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Three Bills, One Goal: Loosen Florida’s Mandatory Minimum Laws

November 13th, 2017 by Jake Stofan
Certain drug crimes come with mandatory minimum sentences meaning when a person is convicted, they have to serve a minimum term by law.
Some Florida lawmakers say the policies don’t work and are over crowding the state prisons, costing tax payers millions of dollars.
Three proposals in the Legislature would give judges the option to give out lesser sentences.
Housing more than 100,000 inmates costs Florida tax payers $2.4 billion a year.
Thousands have been given mandatory sentences for drug dealing…in some cases, for small amounts.
“It’s become a prison industrial complex. It’s very very costly,” said Dominic Calabro, President of Florida Tax Watch.
Now, Legislation filed for the 2018 session would allow judges to divert from minimum mandatory sentences for certain drug charges.
“This is a good way of giving judges appropriate digression, saving tax payers money,” said Calabro.
One proposal allows judges to reduce sentences for the lowest mandatory minimums of 3 years.
A second bill, Sponsored by Senator Jeff Brandes, would apply to all drug related mandatory minimums, but only for non violent first offenders.

A nearly identical bill has also been filed in the House, but it would only allow judges to reduce mandatory minimum sentences to 1/3 of their original  length.
Opponents argue current law sets possession amounts so high, no average users ever get a mandatory minimum.
“I mean for pot you’re talking about 25 pounds of pot, up to 200 pounds of pot,” said Barney Bishop with the Florida Smart Justice Alliance.
But there are examples of individuals selling or in possession of opiate prescriptions.
When measured by weight, relatively small amounts can result in lengthy prison sentences, even for a first offense.
“Our bill simply allows judges to look at the individual facts of the case and figure out whether he’s dealing with a drug kingpin or an addict,” said Senator Brandes.
An estimated 1,500 Florida prisoners behind bars for selling painkillers have never previously been imprisoned.
They’re costing tax payers more than $29 million each year.

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Victims of Crime Seek New Solutions to Criminal Justice Problems

April 18th, 2017 by Jake Stofan
Victims of violent crime were at the Capitol today advocating for criminal justice reform.
They say they want to see legislation that prevents criminal behavior instead of laws that increase jail time.
They say they believe violent crime often results from untreated trauma.
Queen Brown lost her son in 2006 from gun violence, she wants the state to offer trauma therapy to victims of crime to help break the cycle.
“If there’ a hurricane, we have emergency response teams, FEMA, Red Cross,” said Brown, “They’re going to come in because we understand the importance of reaching out to victims and helping them to get on their feet because when victims recover we all recover. We all win.”
The group held a prayer and vigil in the Capitol Rotunda reminding lawmakers only love can drive out hate.

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Juvenile Justice Reform

February 11th, 2016 by flanews

Florida tries more kids as adults than any other state in the country, and 98 percent of those cases are due to the state’s “Direct file” statute – it basically gives prosecutors the ability to move a juvenile into adult court on a whim. As Matt Galka tells us, lawmakers are now preaching “reform” and are trying to change the law.

If two kids commit the same crime in different parts of the state – one may go through the juvenile justice system – the other could be tried as an adult.  Representative Katie Edwards (D-Plantation) is looking for uniformity.

“I want to get every juvenile a first crack at the juvenile system so they get the programs that they need, the services, the support, and make sure that were not diverting a juvenile who could be rehabilitated in the juvenile system,” she said.

Edwards is part of a bipartisan group of Florida lawmakers looking to reform how kids are tried after they’ve committed crimes in the state.  Her bill would require prosecutors to get a judge’s approval before they can try a juvenile as an adult.

Of the more than 1200 juveniles tried as adults in 2014 and 2015. a majority of them were for non-violent burglary crimes.

Circuit Judge Terrance Ketchel says the adult system doesn’t help most juvenile offenders.

“Juvenile courts have a lot more services, the adult criminal courts, it’s more about punishment,” he said.

34% of the teens who are tried as adults wind up back in prison.

 

“What we’re doing is we are seeing kids who are crimjnally inclined not get the very help to keep them from recidivating,” said former state Juvenile Justice Secretary Wansley Walters.

Non-partisan research group the James Madison institute estimates that reform could save more than $12 million dollars over 10 years – which could then be reinvested for more state juvenile services.

The bill still gives prosecutors the ability to direct file and transfer a kid into adult court for more heinous offenses a juvenile may be charged with including murder, carjacking, and sexual crimes.

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