Two Senate leaders dropped major policy measures right before the winter holiday season, with promises to file more bills leading up to the New Year.
Senate President-designate Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, on Friday filed his centerpiece legislation to make the state Department of Children and Families more accountable and streamline its adoption process.
That same day, Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, introduced an integral part of his criminal justice reform package that aims to reduce the sentences of young adult and juvenile offenders.
He chairs the chamber's Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice, and is vice chair of the Criminal Justice Committee.
The timing was not intentional, Brandes said, but done out of necessity to position the bills to get heard at the beginning of session, which starts Jan. 14.
"We’re filing bills when they are ready," said Brandes, who has a reputation for filing more bills than his colleagues. "Some of it is getting tweaked through the pipes over and over again."
He said he can't rely on getting much staff time over the holidays but wants to get bills filed and referred to committee so they can get heard first week of session. "We’re putting out our best ideas," he said.
Brandes already has filed several related to reducing mandatory sentencing, conditional medical release for inmates, and conditional release for elderly inmates, and expects to file more crime-related bills in the coming weeks, including one related to adult use of marijuana.
Called "The Second Look Act," the bill filed Friday (SB 1308) would allow a judge to review the sentences of certain juvenile and young adult offenders who were convicted under the age of 25.
"If you are under 25 and served a significant part of your sentence, you have the opportunity to be resentenced if you’ve been reformed," Brandes said. "It’s called 'second look' because people aren’t static; they change. You are not the same person you were as when you were in high school."
Brandes said it’s needed to relieve prison crowding caused by mandatory sentencing guidelines and budget cuts that have caused staff shortages, turnover, and a lack of resources for education, training and drug treatment.
"This provides the system with a safety valve," he said. "We recognize (that) the injustice of sentences that are too long are as unjust as sentences that are too short."
The measure, which has the support of Families against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) and other reform-minded groups, has broad and bipartisan support. It is similar to legislation sponsored in the U.S. Senate by Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, a Democratic candidate for President.
"The Brandes bill reflects most of the same principles," said Greg Newburn, policy director for FAMM in Florida. "We need a mechanism to decide who should stay incarcerated and who should be let out."
Newburn was critical of last session’s efforts to enact sentencing reforms, calling the end result a "bad joke." The Legislature scrapped many of the changes Brandes offered up, and only eliminated one mandatory minimum — on the illegal consumption of horse meat.
The legislature did raise the threshold on felony theft from $300 to $750 and reduced the third offense for driving with a suspended license from a felony to a misdemeanor.
Just about a year ago, President Trump signed "The First Step Act" into law, creating retroactive sentencing reforms. Brandes and others have reintroduced many of the measures that failed last session in Florida.
"I certainly hope the Legislature is more responsive this year than in previous years," Newburn said.
The reintroduction of these criminal justice reforms come at a time when a newly appointed Corrections Secretary Mark Inch has issued dire warnings about the current status quo of the state's prison system as "unsustainable."
'Accountability' at DCF
Simpson’s sweeping 57-page bill (SB 1326) would create the "DCF Accountability Act," which among other things creates an Office of Quality Assurance and Improvement within the Department of Children and Families.
It also establishes a 'chief quality officer' to ensure that DCF maintains high standards in protecting the state’s most vulnerable children.
But Simpson’s main focus is on creating a better system for adopting children out of temporary foster care into permanent situations. Simpson himself was adopted at the age of 6.
"We specifically have a group of kids that are generally handled through the DCF process, and I don’t think we have done a very good job of, first of all, holding those agencies responsible for this accountable," Simpson said in a phone interview with the Democrat.
"And then number two ... I think there are some common sense things we can do to make these children's lives better that are in this situation, and making sure that hopefully we can first of all have an ample amount of foster parents ready to go when the children need to be fostered."
DCF has 33,000 children in foster care, half of whom could be adopted if the process weren’t so onerous, he said. He wants to maintain accountability while focusing on getting children out of foster care and the courts and into a permanent living situation.
"It's gonna take quite a bit of resources to do all the things that I would like," Simpson told the Democrat. "And you know, there's so much need and only so many dollars. I just think it's time that this one gets the attention it deserves."
The companion bill in the House will be filed by Rep. Josie Tomkow, R-Polk City. She told the Lakeland Ledger that her grandparents once had custody of two children who were returned to their previous home in what she called "just a horrible situation."
Simpson is optimistic that Gov. Ron DeSantis and First Lady Casey DeSantis will support the measure. They’ve demonstrated support for previous adoption-related initiatives.
DeSantis signed "A Year is a Long Time in the Life of a Child Act," aimed at reducing time that abused and neglected kids spend in foster care. He also declared November as National Adoption Month.
The DeSantises "have been tireless advocates for the work we do at DCF," Secretary Chad Poppell said in a news release. "I’m thankful that they are recognizing National Adoption Month and supporting our statewide effort to connect children with their forever families."
Contact Schweers at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeffschweers.
This story originally published to tallahassee.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the new Gannett Media network.