Florida passes a massive criminal justice bill

May 3, 2019

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — A massive criminal justice bill that revises laws ranging from selling horse meat for human consumption to raising the threshold for committing felony theft was sent to Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday.

The 350-page bill takes steps to address Florida’s overburdened prison system — though some of the boldest ideas were stripped from the bill before it was passed. It will prevent more people from going to prisons with felony convictions and make it easier for those coming out of prisons to get jobs in the hopes they won’t reoffend.

“For low-level, nonviolent offenders, we are taking a new approach to make sure they have a new opportunity in life,” Republican Rep. Paul Renner said. “We have to make sure we have opportunity as a centerpiece.”

The bill would raise the threshold to be charged with felony theft from $300 to $750. It also would reduce the penalty for a third conviction for driving with a suspended license from a felony to a misdemeanor. Other provisions make it easier for felons returning to freedom to get professional licenses for construction, plumbing, barber, cosmetology and other trades.

“Nothing in this will bill will disturb a 50-year low in our crime rate,” Renner said.

Democratic Rep. Ben Diamond said lawmakers have more to do in future sessions, especially to reduce Florida’s prison population that now tops 100,000 inmates. One way to do that, he said, would be to give judges more discretion in sentencing certain nonviolent offenders to little or no prison time.

“I think this is an important first step. I think we have more work to do,” Diamond said.

Democratic Rep. Wengay Newton said raising the felony theft threshold means fewer young people will carry a felony conviction with them throughout their lives.

“We’re not being soft. There is punishment for what you’ve done. It just shouldn’t last forever,” Newton said.

Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes pushed for two provisions that the House insisted be removed from the bill. One would have made changes to the state’s truth in sentencing law. The law requires felons to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences. Brandes wanted that to be reduced to 65 percent for nonviolent felons.

The other would have given judges more leeway in sentencing nonviolent drug offenders rather than having their hands tied with mandatory minimum sentences. The idea was to take money spent on prisons and redirect it to crime prevention and law enforcement.

Other provisions in the bill would:

— Make it illegal to access someone’s online account without their permission.

— Delete a mandatory minimum one-year sentence for mislabeling horse meat and selling it for human consumption.

— Allow Florida Supreme Court justices to open official offices in their hometowns.