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Partner Spotlight: Florida Policy Institute fights for criminal justice reform

Florida Policy Institute (FPI) is an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing policies and budgets that improve the economic mobility and quality of life for all Floridians. The organization accomplishes this through research, strategic outreach, coalition building and policy advocacy.

Florida courts rely heavily on driver’s license suspension as a punishment for nonpayment of court fines and fees. This approach is counterintuitive: It creates a barrier to work, which reduces the likelihood that someone will be able to pay, and it increases the likelihood of recidivism, according to Tachana Joseph-Marc, a policy analyst for the Florida Policy Institute who focuses on criminal justice reform and affordable housing.

“Florida needs smart and sustainable criminal justice reform; it’s time to stop relying on temporary fixes,” Joseph-Marc said.

In 2017, Florida suspended the driving privileges of roughly half a million people for failure to pay non-criminal traffic violations. Currently, the state uses suspensions as a compliance tool to collect payment for such traffic citations – for example, running a red light or having an expired tag. This practice has contributed to millions of Floridians having suspended driver’s licenses, with most suspensions normally lasting two years.

While Florida’s statutes have allowed for payment plans that consider an individual’s income, enforcement varies widely among local clerks. This has created an inequitable system where people who have the ability to pay fare much better than those who cannot. The SPLC Action Fund and Florida Policy Institute are working together on several joint lobbying efforts, including the fight to change this system and make it an equitable one for all parties.

FPI also did extensive research into HB 1, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ anti-protest bill that is designed to criminalize Floridians for exercising their First Amendment right to publicly seek a redress of grievances. By redefining “rioting,” the bill grants police officers wide discretion in deciding who can be arrested and charged with a third-degree felony at a protest. The bill fails to provide any protection for people who have not engaged in disorderly or violent conduct. In Florida, a felony charge strips people of their right to vote.

HB 1 would also hinder local governments from determining how to allocate law enforcement resources to address critical needs in their communities. It allows the governor, with the Cabinet, to seize control of a city budget and amend it to their liking at the appeal of any county commissioner or state attorney, regardless of whether local elected officials approve of changes made in the budget.

HB 1 would also shield violent counterprotesters from civil liability for killing a peaceful protester or demonstrator with their vehicle, and it would make pulling down a Confederate flag an offense punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

Florida Policy Institute has worked with the SPLC Action Fund to lobby legislators against HB 1. The two organizations also continue to fight for occupational licensing. An occupational or professional license is required for certain jobs in Florida, such as barbering and interior design.

However, many states impose arbitrary and burdensome licensing regulations. Despite recent reforms such as the Occupational Freedom and Opportunity Act, people who have been formerly incarcerated face many barriers to entering Florida’s heavily regulated markets. The state’s current professional licensing laws are among them.

However, HB 953, co-sponsored by Reps. Kevin Chambliss and Scott Plakon, and a similar bill in the Senate, SB 1032, sponsored by Sen. Keith Perry, include three key provisions that would help expand access to Florida’s labor market for formerly incarcerated people.

FPI has provided research on the various barriers that prevented people with past felony convictions from obtaining an occupational license. It has supported a bill that would change current law to reduce the waiting period for applying for a license from five years to two years for certain occupations.

Further, that bill would get rid of the vague and arbitrary moral character requirements, which do not specify exactly what “good moral character” is. The bill would also create a pathway for people who received vocational credits while incarcerated to use the applicable credits toward their required professional training hours.

For more information on Florida Policy Institute, click here.

Donn Scott Jr. is a policy associate for the SPLC Action Fund.

Photo at top: Tachana Joseph-Marc, a policy analyst for the Florida Policy Institute