The Senate committee on appropriations voted unanimously last week to advance SB 346 on Criminal Justice. [Read more…] about Senate Bill 346 on Criminal Justice Unanimously Moves Through Final Committee Stop
United States District Court Judge Mark E. Walker ruled Florida’s voting rights restoration scheme violates the First Amendment rights of free association and free expression, and the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. The decision, issued today, affirmed that the First Amendment protects the right to vote – “the beating heart of our democratic government” – and concluded that the process by which Florida officials grant or deny former felons’ restoration of voting rights applications is unconstitutionally arbitrary. Judge Walker ordered further briefing from the parties on the appropriate remedy. Florida’s former felons still cannot register or vote.
“The question is whether the Clemency Board’s limitless power over Plaintiffs’ vote-restoration violates their First Amendment rights to free association and free expression. It does. This should not be a close question,” Judge Walker stated in the decision.
The lawsuit was filed in March 2017 by the national voting rights organization, Fair Elections Legal Network, and the law firm, Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC, on behalf of a proposed class of almost 1.5 million former felons who have completed their full sentences.
Citing a long line of Supreme Court cases striking down laws which give officials unrestricted power to control First Amendment rights, the Court concluded that the absence of any constraints on the Executive Clemency Board’s power to restore or deny voting rights “risks—if not covertly authorizes the practice of—arbitrary and discriminatory vote-restoration.”
“Today a federal court said what so many Floridians have known for so long—that the state’s arbitrary restoration process, which forces former felons to beg for their right to vote, violates the oldest and most basic principles of our democracy,” said Jon Sherman, Senior Counsel at Fair Elections Legal Network. “While the Court has yet to order a remedy in this case, it has held in no uncertain terms that a state cannot subject U.S. citizens’ voting rights to the limitless power of government officials.”
The Court’s order also stated that, “In Florida, elected, partisan officials have extraordinary authority to grant or withhold the right to vote from hundreds of thousands of people without any constraints, guidelines, or standards. The question now is whether such a system passes constitutional muster. It does not.”
“We are very happy with the Court’s ruling as it provides our country’s most basic rights to be restored to those who have served their time. No longer can politicians arbitrarily deny fundamental rights to citizens of the State of Florida,” said Theodore Leopold, partner with Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll.
The decision concluded, “If any one of these citizens wishes to earn back their fundamental right to vote, they must plod through a gauntlet of constitutionally infirm hurdles. No more.”
Florida is one of four states that denies the right to vote to all former felons until they petition for rights restoration, and this process is the target of the lawsuit. About 1.5 million Floridians are currently disenfranchised even after completing their sentences, including men and women of all different political parties, races, ethnicities, ages, from cities and rural areas, as well as veterans, small business owners and others. Over 10,000 former felons are waiting for a hearing on their restoration applications.
The lawsuit cited the lack of any rules governing the Executive Clemency Board’s decisions to grant or deny applications and contended that the arbitrary rights restoration process violates the U.S. Constitution and hinders former felons from truly reentering society.
Legislation would reform the way children are prosecuted in adult criminal court statewide
Legislation sponsored by Senator Bobby Powell (D-West Palm Beach) seen as a key component of criminal justice reform in the state of Florida is heading for its second Senate hearing, following a bi-partisan 5-1 vote of support in the Senate Criminal Justice Committee on Monday.
“I thank the Committee for recognizing the need for change,” said Senator Powell. “Our children are losing their futures in the current system. That benefits no one—not the state of Florida, not the criminal justice system and, certainly, not these kids.”
Backed by a broad array of social, religious and legal advocacy organizations, including the Florida Public Defenders Association, the Florida PTA, the ACLU of Florida and the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, Senator Powell’s ‘direct file’ bill, SB936, would reform the way children are prosecuted as adults in Florida
Currently, there are three ways juveniles are sent to the adult criminal justice system: indictment, judicial waivers and direct file, the latter giving prosecutors, not judges, the sole discretion to decide how children are prosecuted. Florida leads the nation in the numbers of children prosecuted as adults and is one of only three states that do not involve a judge in those decisions.
Senator Powell’s legislation would change that by eliminating mandatory direct file, prohibiting the direct filing of 14- and 15-year-olds, and revising the list of crimes for which prosecutors can decide to send children of any age into the adult system, among other important provisions.
“No one is saying children should not be held accountable for their actions,” said Scott McCoy, senior policy attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center, and a supporter of the bill. “What we’re saying is they should be held accountable in the system we designed for that purpose, which is not the adult system, but the juvenile justice system. Otherwise, it’s tantamount to throwing them away.”
Senator Powell’s bill next heads to the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice.
The Florida Senate Committee on Criminal Justice, chaired by Senator Randolph Bracy (D-Ocoee) today passed Senate Bill 196, Juvenile Civil Citation and Similar Diversion Programs, sponsored by Senate President Pro Tempore Anitere Flores (R-Miami, Monroe) and Senator Bracy.
“All too often, youth today are being arrested and charged for criminal acts that were once considered childhood mistakes and lack of judgement and maturity,” said Senate President Joe Negron (R-Stuart), who has made juvenile justice reform a top priority of his two-year term. “Instead of helping our youth to learn positively from their mistakes like we once did, they may be put in the juvenile justice system, which then creates a criminal record that could potentially follow them for their rest of their lives.”
Senate Bill 196 requires a law enforcement officer to issue a civil citation or require the juvenile’s participation in a diversion program when the juvenile admits to committing certain first-time misdemeanor offenses including: possession of alcoholic beverages, criminal mischief, trespass, and disorderly conduct, among others.
“There is a delicate balance here. We should not and will not tolerate serious wrongdoing and violent crimes committed by young people. At the same time, we need workable solutions that move away from the over-criminalization of adolescents. I am grateful to Pro Tempore Flores, Senator Bracy and many other Senators who have taken a leadership role in addressing this important issue.”
Under Senate Bill 196, a law enforcement officer must provide written documentation articulating why an arrest is warranted when he or she has the discretion to issue a civil citation but instead chooses to arrest the juvenile.
The legislation also specifies that the option of the issuance of a civil citation or referral to a similar diversion program does not apply to a juvenile who is alleged to have committed, currently charged with, has plead guilty to, or has been convicted of a felony, or a misdemeanor offense arising out of an episode in which the juvenile is also alleged to have committed a felony.