Over the years, Florida’s pace on implementing criminal justice reform has significantly lagged other large states, like California and Texas. Florida lawmakers have long theorized about criminal justice reform, but have invested minimally in substantive policy changes and allocation of funds. However, this legislative session is setting a new tone, as several criminal justice bills seek to adopt a “smart on crime” model. Senator Jeff Brandes, Chair of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice, called it a “paradigm shift” as he introduced his budget proposal for the state’s criminal justice system last week.
The Senate proposed budget offers increased funding for programs in the Department of Corrections, Juvenile Justice and the Judiciary that promote physical safety, health, rehabilitation and prevention. A few of the notable improvements for the Department of Corrections are: additional funding for post-secondary education of inmates through CareerSource Florida, mental health assistance, medication costs, electronic mentoring services, salary increases for correctional officers employed by private parties and a re-entry program.
For the Department of Juvenile Justice, the proposed budget allocates more funds for: a 5 percent increase for direct care workers in residential programs, the continuation and expansion of various prevention and intervention programs for at-risk youth, the establishment of the Office of Youth and Family Advocacy and purchases of camera equipment for residential facilities statewide.
Additional funding is provided to the courts to reestablish the Domestic Violence Court Division and the investigation and implementation of human trafficking crimes for the State Attorney of the Ninth Judicial Circuit. Furthermore, the 19th Circuit Public Defender’s Office is granted more funds to retain mental health professionals to assist with diversion.
The proposed budget was reported favorably by the subcommittee, and it has moved to the Senate General Appropriations committee. The House’s budget proposal, which carries some significant differences from the Senate’s version, was also referred to the House General Appropriation committee. The road ahead is long and may be full of unexpected changes and fierce negotiations, as each chamber seeks to pass its own version and eventually agree on a joint budget. But, this is a step in the right direction. As Chairman Brandes said on Tuesday, “all budgets tell a story,” and the Senate proposed budget is reassuring Floridians that their calls for sustainable criminal justice reform are being heard and tangible solutions are in the horizon.