Rights Behind the Headlines: Gov. DeSantis’ misguided view of the criminal legal system and policing obstructs the pathway for better justice for Floridians

Rights Behind the Headlines is a new blog series from the ACLU of Florida that dispels misinformation and gives Floridians critical information about the most pressing issues facing our state. Read the full series at aclufl.org/rightsbehindtheheadlines  

Today, we’re dispelling claims that holding law enforcement accountable for misconduct and brutality, and reforming the criminal legal system leaves communities unsafe. Nationwide studies and examples show that investing in rehabilitation makes communities safer. Diverting law enforcement budgets to invest in community-based solutions also makes communities safer. Far from being “soft on crime,” these evidence-based, cost-efficient reforms increase public safety, reduce recidivism, and save taxpayer dollars. Reforms that Gov. DeSantis has failed to pursue. Read the headline from Florida Politics here: Gov. DeSantis vows to stand with police, blasts ‘soft on crime’ policies in State of the State.

Floridians have overwhelmingly made their desire for a criminal legal system that prioritizes rehabilitation and holds police officers accountable for misconduct known. First, with the passage of Amendment 4 to restore voting rights to Floridians with past felony convictions, and then by participating in anti-police brutality protests in the summer of 2020.

Despite Floridians’ loud calls for change, Gov. Ron DeSantis has doubled down to insulate the currently expensive, ineffective criminal legal system from common-sense reforms. Earlier in January, DeSantis continued to attack reform efforts, mislabeling them “soft on crime” and vowing to stand with police. DeSantis’ anti-reform policies are not making our communities safer. Rather, they are making us less safe by protecting bad actors in law enforcement from being held accountable, obstructing the public’s ability to have transparency, expanding the revolving door of mass incarceration, and promoting extreme fiscal waste of limited taxpayer funds. 

DeSantis set a terrible precedent by signing House Bill 1 in 2021, which gave his office veto power over local government budgets that reallocated any portion of funding related to law enforcement agencies. This was first and foremost an unprecedented targeting of local autonomy. But it was also another instance of DeSantis wielding the power of the state for his own political gain.

DeSantis has targeted anti-police brutality protests by signing a number of bills that infringed on Floridians’ rights, including limiting where protesters could exercise their right to assemble, giving law enforcement the power to surveil demonstrators without a warrant, and giving police more power to arrest Floridians for being near rowdy protesters even if they themselves are not engaging in any unlawful conduct. 

Most recently, DeSantis removed a state attorney from office in August with whom he personally disagreed, despite the fact that Florida law gives independently elected state attorneys broad discretion to determine how best to seek justice in individual cases they are responsible for prosecuting. These punitive actions from our state’s leader are what we expect to see from repressive regimes, not a democratic nation.

Local governments have the right to reallocate and restructure budgets to meet the needs of their communities, including diverting funds from police budgets to invest in more mental health services or diversion resources for residents in need. Many cities in Florida are already doing this, and have been successful.

On the local level, counties like Leon are struggling with jail space because of the sheer number of low-income Floridians who remain detained simply because they cannot afford bail. Organizations, like The Bail Project, have shown how bail reform and community investment help everyone. Not only do most people who benefit from bail assistance show up to their court dates, but the organization helps them access necessary resources such as homelessness assistance and addiction recovery.

For the past several years, bipartisan bills have been filed in the legislature to reform Florida’s archaic restrictions that keep people in prison long after they have been rehabilitated. Florida spends nearly $3 billion to incarcerate roughly 82,000 people in prison each year. Increasing rehabilitation credits to shorten sentences of those who have shown rehabilitation is estimated to save the state $860 million over the next five years and evidence-based research has shown that increasing rehabilitation in prisons makes our communities safer and reduces recidivism. While other states, including our Southern neighbors, are working in a bipartisan manner to make such evidence-based reforms, the Governor is clinging to outdated, ineffective, and costly approaches that are devastating families and communities. 

For years, the Governor has relied on scare tactics and trumped-up claims to justify the need to be “tough on crime.” The problem is that the so-called “tough on crime” policies that the Governor supports do not make our communities safer. Instead of being “tough on crime,” they are “tough on our pocketbook” and “tough on people’s liberties and First Amendment rights,” but they have not been effective in increasing public safety and reducing crime.

Florida’s criminal legal system is broken and expensive. It leaves lasting harm on Floridians and communities. But things don’t have to remain the same. We can prevent crime by focusing our resources on the root causes: poverty, drug addiction, and mental health issues. We can do this in a humane manner that increases public safety without infringing on people’s rights.

It’s beyond time we left the bullying tactics to protect a broken system in the past. Floridians deserve leaders who follow the evidence, prioritize fiscal responsibility, pursue justice, and invest in people, not prisons.