Florida First Step Act could bring major criminal justice reforms

February 19, 2019

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (CNS) — 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 five 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 offenders learn a trade or 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 of 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.

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 violent crimes.”

Similar reforms have failed in years 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.