We are pleased to report that the 2017 Florida Legislative Session concluded with notable successes for the ACLU’s legislative priorities of protecting and defending civil rights and liberties.
A detailed outline of several of the legislative successes and challenges in ACLU’s priority policy areas is outlined below.
CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM
The Florida Campaign for Criminal Justice Reform (CCJR), consisting of a partnership between the ACLU of Florida, Southern Poverty Law Center, and several aligned organizations, mobilized this session in a bipartisan effort to address issues of mass incarceration in Florida. Florida today imprisons approximately 100,000 people, costing taxpayers $2.3 billion annually – more than the state allocates for higher education. One out of every 104 people is currently locked up, giving Florida the ninth highest incarceration rate in the country. In addition, one out of 54 residents is under some kind of supervision by the criminal justice system. Below are a few of our criminal justice reform successes this session:
Criminal History Records (SB 118) - Passed
The Campaign for Criminal Justice Reform supported SB 118, relating to criminal history records. The legislation prohibits the practice of an entity publishing an arrestee’s booking photograph and then soliciting removal of the photo for a fee, and allows a criminal history record to be sealed under certain conditions.
Securing $300,000 for Criminal Justice Reform Research – Senate and House agreed to the appropriation, but Governor vetoed the funding
The Campaign worked hard to secure a budget appropriation of $300,000 for criminal justice reform research. These funds were to be used for collecting and analyzing data regarding Florida’s criminal justice system to enable lawmakers to make informed decisions about how to reduce mass incarceration, racial injustice, and increase community safety. We initially envisioned these funds being implemented by a Criminal Justice Task Force, but the Task Force bill stalled in committees, and we were able to successfully lobby for the criminal justice reform research funding to continue as a budget appropriation that was sent to the Governor for his signature. Unfortunately, the Governor vetoed the funding as part of his effort to veto over $400 million from the budget.
Increasing Felony Thresholds Amount (SB 1102/HB 693) – Passed in the House; Died in Final Senate Committee
We made significant progress in working towards increasing felony threshold amounts. The threshold felony amount in Florida is currently $300. Thus, in Florida, if you steal an iPhone (which these days costs significantly more than $300), it is a felony offense. In comparison, the threshold is much higher in neighboring southern states: The threshold in Texas is $2,500, and Georgia and Alabama both are $1,500. Since 2001, over thirty states have updated their monetary felony thresholds, but Florida has not done so with many of its thresholds dating back to 1986. Legislation was introduced this session that raised the minimum monetary threshold for various felony property crimes from $300 to $750. Similar bills have been introduced in the past, but never before has the legislation had so much bipartisan support and passed so many committees. The bill passed 5 out of 6 committees. Ultimately the bill died in the Senate, but it passed the House almost unanimously 118 yes, 1 no votes. This is a tremendous accomplishment this session and bodes well for 2018.
Progress on Goal of Civil Citations (HB 301) – Passed in the Senate; Died in the House
We were able to make significant progress in our goal of increasing the use of civil citations/prearrest diversion programs for juveniles and adults for non-violent misdemeanor offenses. Bills requiring mandatory civil citations for juveniles, encouraging widespread use of civil citations for adults, and requiring expunction of juvenile civil citation records were introduced this session and made their way through numerous committees. Ultimately the bills did not pass, but we were encouraged by the receptivity among the legislators to addressing these concerns, and the number of committees and Senators and Representatives who supported these measures.
Fortunately, no legislation was filed this session explicitly attacking the rights of individuals based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. The ACLU supported two bills this sessions relating to LGBT rights.
Florida Competitive Workforce Act (SB 666/HB 623) – No Senate or House Floor Votes
The ACLU of Florida strongly supported the Florida Competitive Workforce Act which would have protected anyone who lives or works in the Sunshine State from being discriminated against at work, in housing or in public places like restaurants because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. While this legislation did not pass, it gained greater support than previously seen in the legislature, with bipartisan support in the Senate among its 18 cosponsors, and in the House with 52 cosponsors.
Transmission of Disease Through Bodily Fluids (SB 628) – No Senate or House Floor Votes
The ACLU of Florida also supported the Transmission of Disease Through Bodily Fluids bill. The bill sought to modernize Florida statutes regarding sexually transmissible infections (STIs) to reflect advances in scientific knowledge and medical treatment, particularly as they concern prevention and treatment of HIV. We were very pleased that the bill passed its first committee unanimously, but unfortunately was not heard in additional committees.
Several anti-immigrant bills were filed this session, and all were defeated. We worked collaboratively with aligned partners to successfully advocate and lobby against these bills. Two of the bills that were filed and defeated are highlighted below:
Banning Sanctuary Policies and Requiring ICE Enforcement (SB 786/HB 697) – Passed in the House; Died in the Senate
These bills would have banned sanctuary policies and required local law enforcement to enforce unconstitutional warrantless detention requests from the federal government. They would have required that immigrants be detained for an additional 48 hours without any judicial warrant demonstrating probable cause to believe that the individual committed a crime. Additionally, they would have stretched law enforcement resources in our communities and discouraged immigrants who are crime victims from calling police or reporting crimes. This bill passed the House, but was not heard in any Senate Committee of reference
Increased Sentences for Undocumented Immigrants (SB 120/HB 83) – No Senate or House Floor Votes
These bills would have increased the criminal offense for undocumented immigrants to the next higher level offense, solely on the basis of the immigrant’s status. For example, a third-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in a county jail would have been reclassified as a first-degree felony, with a maximum five-year prison sentence, if committed by an undocumented immigrant. This bill passed two out of three committees in both the House and the Senate.
No legislation passed this session that restricts a woman’s access to abortion or access to care – a significant win for women’s access to health care and reproductive rights this year. This is a notable accomplishment given the bills that were filed and that showed early signs of progressing, but were later stalled after much opposition from aligned partners, advocates, individuals and the medical community. The bills that were defeated include, but are not limited to:
20 Week Ban (SB 348/HB 203)
These bills would have banned abortion after 20-weeks. They failed to consider a woman’s individual personal and medical circumstances that may necessitate an abortion after twenty weeks, and contained no exceptions for the woman’s health, or for instances of rape or incest.
Provider Liability (HB 19/SB 1140)
These “Provider Liability” bills would have made an abortion provider liable for emotional distress and/or physical injury for up to 10 years after the termination of pregnancy. This more than doubled the four-year medical malpractice statute of limitations only for physicians who perform abortions as compared to any other type of physician or medical procedure.
Humanity of the Unborn Child (SB 1006/HB 841)
These bills would have required the state to develop anti-choice propaganda materials and distribute them in ob-gyn offices and include them in curricula taught in schools. These bills jeopardized a woman’s health and autonomy by allowing the State Department of Health to develop and distribute informational materials deterring women from procuring a safe procedure and shaming women from making personal and private decisions regarding their pregnancy.
Canvassing of Vote-by-Mail Ballots (HB 105) - Passed
We tracked more than 20 voting rights–related bills during the course of the 2017 session. Unfortunately, our legislative work revealed there was little prospect of passage for these bills and so our work was limited in this area and focused on other legislative priorities. Ultimately, only one voting rights bill passed the Legislature, namely Canvassing of Vote-by-mail ballots (HB 105). The legislation modifies and clarifies provisions governing the canvassing of vote-by-mail ballots; authorizes the use of the vote-by-mail ballot cure affidavit if an elector's signature does not match the signature in the registration books or precinct register; and specifies that a Florida driver license or Florida identification card are acceptable forms of identification for purposes of curing a vote-by-mail ballot.
The Florida Student and School Personnel Religious Liberties Act (SB 436) - Passed
This bill passed in the final hours of legislative debate. It was one of Senate President Negron’s priorities from the first day of session, and he ensured its passage. This bill is troublesome because it allows teachers, administrators, and other adults in positions of power, to proselytize and otherwise advance their religious beliefs during the school day. Under this bill, any student or school employee not in the majority religion at that school is in danger of being further isolated, marginalized, and silenced due to activities championed by others in the majority. Additionally, this bill would allow teachers and other school personnel to discriminate against LGBTQ students under the guise of religious expression. The First Amendment’s Establishment Clause prohibits public schools from endorsing or encouraging any individual religion in any way.
The ACLU has a long history of fighting to protect and defend religious freedom and will continue to do so vigorously, but religious freedom does not mean the right to discriminate against others and treat others less humanely. This bill crosses that line. Fortunately, school districts across Florida have declined to implement similar measures in the past, as they recognize that these types of measures will almost certainly expose districts and school personnel to potential litigation.