It was late on the last Friday of the Legislative session in March, and Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, was visibly fuming on the floor of the Senate chamber, waving his arms and scowling while he spoke to other lawmakers during breaks in formal action.
After long hours of deal-making and drafting, the final hours of session usually bring a sense of celebratory relief. Brandes wasn’t having it.
“I had a terrible last 24 to 48 hours of session,” Brandes said later, adding that several of his priorities went “up in flames.”
It partially had to do with Brandes’s 64-page transportation package bill that died that night — but also his criminal justice bills, which had been close to inching over the finish line before meeting the same fate.
Relaxing mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders: dead. Raising the dollar amounts for property theft to qualify as a felony: dead. Allowing certain people to be released from jail with ankle monitors instead of paying bond: dead.
“It’s an election year and (state lawmakers) are concerned about an issue in the election or a perception … but the public supports most of these policy decisions and they want people coming out of prison better than when they came in,” Brandes said, referring to what he saw as resistance in the House’s leadership.
Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, in line to be House Speaker in 2021 and chair of the House Judiciary Committee, spearheaded a bill that will require local courts and jails to submit huge amounts of criminal justice data to be organized and analyzed as a public record. It was later combined with a bill sponsored by Brandes that allows certain juvenile offenders to pay civil citations instead of serving more serious penalties.
Sprowls was often asked if the data collection was a compromise or a substitute for information gathering instead of enacting reforms.
“It’s hard to call anything a ‘compromise’ when Florida will be a leader in the United States and the gold standard,” he said. “I think that’s the most significant thing we could have done in the criminal justice space.”
But that data won’t begin to roll in until the summer of 2019, and Sprowls, a former prosecutor in Pasco County, has expressed reluctance to change some aspects of the criminal justice system before the data arrives.
“The idea of that data is not to precook the answer before we have all the information,” he said, explaining that the state doesn’t even know simple statistics like its rate of people going back to prison multiple times.
Meanwhile, Brandes is impatient and has already scheduled a criminal justice “symposium” for May 9 at St. Petersburg College. The event will feature a unique mix of libertarian and civil rights groups that have reached common ground on the idea that Florida must change the way it views corrections — from the American Civil Liberties Union to the Charles Koch Network.
Florida’s inmate population now stands at 96,000 people, well above the national average per capita. Taxpayers pay about $2.4 billion per year to maintain its prisons.
Brandes said he’s already thinking about the dynamics at play in the 2019 session with optimism that more will be done because the problem is urgent.
“The criminal justice system has cancer, now we’re going to have an MRI to tell us the criminal justice system has cancer,” he said. “There are only so many ways to treat this disease and we need to recognize the treatment options haven’t changed.”