In a rebuke to 157 voting members of the Florida Legislature, Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday night vetoed a measure that would have paved the way for tens of thousands of juveniles to get their criminal records erased after completing a behavioral program.
The veto came as a shock to many lawmakers, who supported the measure. The proposal, they said, moved through the legislative process with little to no opposition and it was an approach that would have allowed minors with past run-ins with the law to face fewer barriers to employment, housing and education.
“I am, frankly, dumbfounded. … I don’t understand why you wouldn’t give an opportunity to a kid to remake their life,” said Sen. Annette Taddeo, a Miami Democrat who co-sponsored Senate Bill 274.
The bill would have allowed about 27,000 minors to request that their arrest records be expunged following the successful completion of a diversion program for any offense, including felonies. Discretion would have still been given to either the law enforcement officer that confronted the minor at the time of the offense or the state attorney that is handling the case.
State law currently allows only juveniles with misdemeanor offenses to get that opportunity.
DeSantis, whose pro-law enforcement stance remains a pillar of his platform, did not make his concerns about the proposal known during the annual 60-day legislative session, according to Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Subcommittee Chair Keith Perry, bill sponsor. But in a letter Tuesday night, the governor said he vetoed the bill out of concern for public safety.
“I have concerns that the unfettered ability to expunge serious felonies, including sexual battery, from a juvenile’s record may have negative impacts on public safety,” DeSantis wrote.
Perry, R-Gainesville, said the governor’s concerns were “legitimate.” But Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, said he was disappointed to see DeSantis use the “most extreme case” as the reason why thousands of others won’t get a diversion opportunity.
“They’re not offering diversion to rapes. They’re not offering diversion for extreme sexual assaults,” Brandes said. “But that is what made the veto letter.”
DeSantis’ veto came a day after he attended a conference hosted by the Florida Police Chiefs Association, a powerful lobbying group that opposed the measure during the legislative session. In January, a representative for the organization said the bill “could have a negative impact on public safety,” in a letter to Perry.
“We do not believe that a juvenile that commits a violent offense, sex offense or one that takes advantage of a member of a vulnerable population, should be allowed to ‘clear the slate’ by participating in such a program,” Amy Mercer, the executive director of the organization, wrote before the legislative session. DeSantis echoed that argument in his veto letter.
Mercer’s letter said the association would like to see a “specific list of felony offenses for which juveniles would not be eligible to participate” in diversion programs. Perry said he intends to file a bill again next year that will address the “legitimate” concerns raised by the governor and police chiefs.
“I didn’t think they [concerns] rose to the level that it would happen, but I get it. I understand completely why the governor vetoed my bill,” Perry said, noting he will work with the governor’s staff more closely next year to ensure the new version gets signed into law.
Perry said it is “very critical” to offer juveniles with felonies the opportunity to expunge their criminal records.
“A felony could be stealing someone’s laptop, and you don’t want someone who is 16 and who stole a laptop to have this felony conviction follow them around,” he said.
The measure has been a silver lining for reform-minded legislators and advocates after the legislative session ended with many criminal justice bills dead. The bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Joe Gruters, a Sarasota Republican who doubles as the chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, received nearly unanimous approval in both the Republican-led House and Senate.
In the Senate, all 40 members voted in favor of the bill. Sen. Jennifer Bradley, R-Fleming Island, initially abstained from voting but later voted in favor of it. In the 120-member House, 117 members voted yes and three state representatives did not cast a vote.
Taddeo said DeSantis’ veto was “crazy” considering how much support the measure received.
“As a governor you have to look at a unanimous vote every step of the way and then say, how do I disagree with every single member of the Senate and the House?” Taddeo said.
Perry, who has sponsored the bill two years in a row, said that had he known the governor’s concerns earlier, “we could have fixed” provisions in the bill to get his support. But he didn’t blame the demise of the bill on the governor’s lack of involvement.
“It is what it is,” Perry said. “It is easy to say, ‘Oh, we should have communicated better.’ But the reality is we have a 60-day session to cram that in.”
DeSantis backs police training bill
DeSantis signed into law legislation that will set new training standards for all law enforcement officers in Florida, after refusing to reveal his stance on the issue for several months.
The bill sets statewide use-of-force policies that would include training on “de-escalation” techniques, require on-duty officers to intervene when a fellow officer uses excessive use of force and would set minimum statewide standards for the use of choke holds.
It would bar the use of choke holds — a controversial neck restraint used by police to subdue suspects — unless an officer “perceives an immediate threat of serious bodily injury or death to themselves or another person.”
The measure was negotiated by House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, and the Florida Legislative Black Caucus following intense scrutiny on policing following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Rep. Fentrice Driskell, a Tampa Democrat who led negotiations on behalf of the Black Caucus, said the bill was a “win” for the caucus and “all communities across the state,” and plans to build on it.
“This bill is just the beginning and we will continue fighting for fair and just policing in Florida,” she said.