Protests spark new hope for criminal justice reform

Those who pushed for reform in years past are hoping that 2021 might be different

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A handful of Florida lawmakers have been pushing for criminal justice reform for years in the Legislature, but their bills rarely go far.

But now protests across the state and nation over the death of George Floyd have reformers hopeful the 2021 legislative session will be different than years past.

These protests have shined a spotlight on the public’s frustration with the criminal justice system.

“I’m hoping that my counterparts across the aisle really get the message,” State Rep. Dianne Hart said.

Hart and the Florida Black Caucus have put together seven pieces of legislation aimed at bringing greater accountability and punishment to bad actors in the justice system.

“At a time like this, everybody should be held accountable,” Hart said.

State Sen. Jeff Brandes has spent years pushing for reforms.

“It’s not just law enforcement," he said. “It’s the court system itself and then it’s obviously the prison system.”

Brandes hopes the Legislature can set aside more funding for officer training.

“In order to free up resources to do that, we need to look at the broader criminal justice system, including the prison system, and figuring out what’s going to give us the best results,” he said.

Stiff opposition from the law enforcement community has blunted past attempts at reform. It’s not yet clear what reforms they may be willing to stomach in light of the protests.

But State Rep. Byron Donalds believes many of the reforms need to be addressed at the local level.

"The actual policies and protocols that they use are part of their training and that’s stuff that the Legislature doesn’t typically write,” Donalds said.

The incoming House and Senate leadership haven’t spoken to reforms directly. Instead, their social media accounts have largely focused on their displeasure with rioting that has occurred.

Shy of a special session, which one state senator has called for, lawmakers won’t be back in the Capitol until November.

In the meantime, some of the lawmakers we spoke with are urging citizens to call their elected officials and advocate for criminal justice reform.