Here Are Three Criminal Justice Bills Drawing Attention Ahead Of Florida's 2021 Legislative Session
Among them: Where concealed weapons will be permitted, and a new class of laws involving rioting.
Florida lawmakers appear set to dive into Criminal Justice issues during the 2021 legislative session. On the list: creating new criminal offenses, changing how and when a minor can be tried in adult court and where gun license holders can take their weapons.
Gov. Ron DeSantis wants to crack down on property damage and vandalism during protests. His proposal was first introduced as a response to the Summers social justice protests, and he highlighted it again following the January 6th attack at the U.S. Capitol.
“We have seen attacks on law enforcement, we’ve seen disorder and tumult in many cities across the country. You all have situations where buildings will be in flames and on TV even though sometimes the news will say it’s peaceful you see the flames behind there," said DeSantis. "I think that this has been a really sad chapter in American history.”
The Governor’s top priority has gained a lot of attention and has already passed one committee in the House. The sponsor Rep. Juan Fernandez-Barquin (R-Miami) says the bill ratchets up crimes that already exist in state law.
"The majority of my bill takes crimes that are already illegal like the following: assault, aggravated assault, battery, aggravated battery, battery of a law enforcement officer, burglary and theft and puts it in the context of a riot," said Fernandez-Barquin.
The measure also creates a new offense called aggravated rioting. It’d be applied to groups of nine or more that cause harm, block roadways, cause property damage, destroy monuments, and other disruptive actions. The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida fears that part of the bill could result in innocent bystanders being arrested for someone else’s acts. The groups' legislative director Kara Gross explains.
"I could go with my family down to a protest we could have no intent to engage in any disorderly conduct whatsoever, and we could just be holding some signs," said Gross. "But somewhere else somebody could engage in a violent or disorderly act. And under this bill, because I’m participating in that peaceful protest that someone else has committed a violent or disorderly act I could be arrested."
Other legislation moving through the criminal justice arena would increase the age for a child to be tried in adult court. The measure would raise the allowable age from 14 to 15 years old. Bill Sponsor, Sen. Randolph Bracy (D-Orlando), says the change could keep kids from cycling back into the prison system.
"When we talk about rehabilitating children it’s almost impossible when they go to an adult prison," said Bracy. "Recidivism is almost assured because of the trauma that happens when they go to an adult prison."
Records show in the last fiscal year 23 kids who were either 13 or 14-years-old were transferred to adult court.
The Florida Smart Justice Alliance opposes the bill. The group says the decision about whether a child should be tried in adult court should be left to local state attorneys. While the measure passed its first stop in the Senate, a House companion has not yet been filed.
And each year legislation related to guns is filed but not always passed and signed into law. This year, however, gun enthusiasts believe they have a chance to expand where concealed guns can be carried.
"The purpose of the bill is to follow in Texas’s footsteps and allow individuals with a Florida concealed weapons and firearms permit to carry on the property of a religious institution unless that institution chooses to prohibit an individual with a CWP from carrying on their property," said Rep. Cord Byrd (R-Jacksonville).
Byrd's bill would make it clear that concealed weapons license holders would be allowed to carry their weapon into churches regardless of whether there’s a school attached. Byrd says there’ve been too many attacks on religious organizations to allow the current exemption to continue.
"Over the last decade we’ve seen a proliferation of attacks on houses of worship and people of faith," said Byrd. "In 2015 we saw the attack on a church in Charleston, S.C., in 2017, the attack on a church in Sutherland, TX. In 2018 the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh and in 2019 a mosque attack in New Zealand."
National Rifle Association lobbyist Marion Hammer is one of the highest-profile backers of the proposal.
"This bill is about restoring the private property rights of religious institutions," said Hammer. "And restoring to people the same rights that they have when they go shopping, or into a business or onto any other private property."
Where Hammer sees a constitutional rights issue, Trish Neely with the Florida League of Women Voters worries the proposal goes too far.
"Do we really want worshippers and students to wonder who’s sitting near them has a gun, am I safe, this teacher hates me will I be shot?" said Neely.
The bill has passed its first stop in both the House and Senate.
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