Criminal justice reform bill a good start, and long overdue | Opinion

In past years, attempts to reform Florida’s criminal justice system — focusing on how criminals are sentenced and guidelines that determine how much time they should spend behind bars — have not gotten far in the Florida Legislature.

This year, lawmakers came to their senses. Tuesday, just weeks before the end of the legislative session, the House and Senate approved Senate Bill 642, the Florida First Step Act, which incorporates parts of the federal act that Congress adopted in December.

The move came after the Florida Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice amended the bill introduced by Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg. The bill is among several aimed at overhauling our archaic justice system.

This is a responsible move that’s long overdue. Between the number of inmates reaching about 100,000, and the $2.4 billion spent to maintain them critically affecting the state budget, it’s no surprise that reform is viewed as a cost-cutting effort — one that needs fairness injected into the process, too.

Amended, the bill won the support of criminal justice reform activists. SB642, which will take effect in July, will:

Raise the threshold for felony theft from $300 to $750. This means offenders will not face serious criminal charges over a $300 theft. That could be a pair of sneakers.

Modify the so-called “truth in sentencing” rule requiring people in prison to serve 85 percent of their sentence. Once enacted, inmates convicted of nonviolent offenses, and regardless of their behavior, will have to serve 65 percent of their sentence. This is an encouraging incentive for rehabilitation, and it will effectively reduce the prison population and save taxpayers money.

More important, the bill will require racial impact statements for future criminal-justice related legislation to ensure policies do not disproportionately harm African Americans and Hispanics. Florida already has a shameful disparity in treatment between white juveniles and black and Hispanic youths, who are disproportionately sent to adult court.

As criminal-justice activists said Tuesday, the legislation is not perfect, but it is a solid step toward reforming a system that at times is harsh, biased, applies “tough on crime” laws imposed in the 1990s and locks up too many minorities.

“Racial impact statements are essential if we hope to address the serious racial disparities that are manifest throughout our criminal justice system,” Scott McCoy, senior policy counsel for the SPLC Action Fund, said in a press release.

With the addition of the truth-in-sentencing change, the Florida Campaign for Criminal Justice Reform coalition, which rejected the original bill, got on board. Micah Kubic, executive director of the ACLU of Florida — which like the SPLC Action Fund, is a coalition member — said in a news release: “These are significant improvements to the bill, which will help make our state a safer, stronger, freer and more vibrant place.”

Passing the Florida First Step Act is a good start. Lawmakers should bolster its effects and pass Senate Bill 400, giving judges discretion in sentencing nonviolent drug offenders; and Senate Bill 534, creating a “risk assessment instrument” to bolster supervised bond programs. Together, they would make Florida’s justice system fairer.