Criminal Justice Bills to Watch in 2021

Given the sustained effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2021 Legislative Session is an opportune time for lawmakers to recommend legislation that would support Florida’s economic recovery. There is also opportunity to herald criminal justice reforms that would yield fiscal savings and promote public safety at a time when the state needs them most. Below are some major senate bills that are expected to have significant impacts on Florida’s criminal justice system and should remain on the radar as they move through their assigned committees.

Criminal Justice

This legislation (SB 232): includes several provisions affecting various areas of the criminal justice system within the state. Most notably, the bill includes provisions amending sentencing laws for juveniles and expanding these changes to young adults as well. Juveniles convicted of capital felonies are typically entitled to a review of their sentence after 25 years of their sentence. However, there is a list of criteria that bars a juvenile from a sentence review hearing, like armed carjacking or false imprisonment, among others. This bill amends the list of several offenses that would bar juveniles from gaining a sentence review so that only murder would be the disqualifying offense. In addition to this amendment, the bill also expands entitlement of a sentence review hearing to young adults, people under the age of 25 at the time of their offense.

It is estimated that 7,400 inmates would be eligible for a sentence review from the passage of this bill. This legislation would allow thousands of currently incarcerated people to demonstrate rehabilitation and their ability to reenter society. This would essentially offer significant fiscal savings for Florida’s prison system and reduce prison bed occupancy.

Juvenile Justice

The Kaia Rolle Act (SB 626) is named after a 6-year-old girl who was handcuffed and arrested by officers last year after a tantrum resulted in kicking and punching staff at her elementary school in Orlando. Although Florida does not currently have a legal minimum age for arrest, this bill would effectively prohibit a child younger than the age of 7, who does not commit a forcible felony, from being adjudicated delinquent, arrested, or charged with a violation of the law or delinquent act. The bill amends existing law to specify that a child has to be aged 15 or older to be taken into custody, rather than a child of any age. The bill also adds that children between 7 and 15 may only be arrested or taken into custody if the child poses a threat of serious bodily harm to another individual— this would be added to the short list of specific reasons that a child may be taken into custody, which currently include failure to appear at a court hearing and fleeing from nonresidential or residential commitment.

Florida is one of 29 states that does not specify a minimum age for delinquency adjudication, and one of 13 states that have no minimum age for the adult prosecution of a child. For children 15 and younger, the increased likeliness of developmental immaturity and incompetency to stand trial may significantly impact a child’s legal-decision making ability, inducing particular vulnerability to police coercion, confessions, and plea agreements. For example, youth are vulnerable to higher risks of sexual, physical, and psychological abuse and trauma when held in adult jails and prisons. This bill would not only subscribe to international recommendations by adding a minimum age for arrest, but it would also offer alternative options for children vulnerable to unfair arrests and legal manipulation. The legislation would have positive long-term impacts for society by curtailing the long-term consequences of becoming involved in the court system, like increased chances of unemployment, lower wages, and future criminal behavior. 


Prior to 2018, Florida outlawed the Legislature’s ability to retroactively apply criminal sentencing changes, known as the Savings Clause. In 2018, Florida voters passed Amendment 11, which amended the Savings Clause to allow a repeal of sentencing laws to be retroactively applied to those sentenced prior to the repeal. While this amendment opened the door to retroactive applicability, in the following legislative session, the implementation legislation that was passed only allowed for retroactivity when it is explicitly stated. This means that from June 2019 and after, legislation must include a retroactive applicability clause in order for changes to criminal sentencing laws to apply to those who were sentenced before the sentencing changes.

SB 328/HB 801 calls for the retroactive applicability of two statutes. In 1999, Florida passed a 10-20-Life law that established mandatory minimum sentences for anyone in possession of a firearm when convicted of committing a list of felonies. In 2016, the Legislature amended statutes to remove aggravated and attempted aggravated assault from the list of offenses that require a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years, 20 years, or a life sentence. Additionally, in 2014, the Legislature amended the minimum sentencing for trafficking hydrocodone and oxycodone from “five years to life” to “three years to life,” as the sentence varies by quantity.

This bill would retroactively apply these two reforms to those sentenced to the minimum sentence requirements before the statute changes in 2016 and 2014. SB 328/HB 801 is expected to reduce the incarceration population and yield significant fiscal savings, as the price to house an inmate per year continues to rise, now at $24,265, up more than $1,500 from the year prior.

All three bills would take strides towards advancing rehabilitation and departing from the decades-long approach of over-incarceration. Notably, these bills offer key fiscal savings that could be reinvested in other critical areas of government services, like training and reentry programs for returning citizens.

Jaylen is studying Public Policy and Social Entrepreneurship with a minor in Chinese via the Interdisciplinary Social Sciences program at Florida State University. Prior to joining FPI as a Criminal Justice Policy Intern, Jaylen gained experience working in the state Legislature, a Judicial Circuit Court, and his own university's completely student-driven campus think tank!

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