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Former Florida Senate President: Most State Residents Want Criminal Justice Reform

Connor Tarter
Flickr Creative Commons

Floridians are more open to reforming the state’s criminal justice system than ever, according to a new poll.

Even once-reliable tough on crime voting blocs are turning the corner.

According tothe poll commissioned by conservative criminal justice think tank Right on Crime, two thirds of registered Florida voters want to see judges have more leeway in mandatory minimum sentencing cases related to first time drug offenders. It also found a majority believe the criminal justice system is supposed to rehabilitate people, not punish them.

Those numbers didn’t change when the survey restricted polling to likely Republican voters.

Former Florida Republican Senate President Mike Haridopolos, once a believer in tough-on-crime policies, said he’s changed his mind over the years.

“I was very tough on crime in my career. I really wanted to make sure those violent offenders were locked up for a long period of time because of what they’ve done to other Floridians. But I’ve also recognized there are some areas where we can make true reforms and the statistics don't lie,” he said. “Other states that have tried some of these really out-of-the-box reforms have found success.”

Haridopolos andRight on Crime are supporting a bill sponsored by a Democrat and Republican that would allow judges to cut sentences for first-time drug offenders whose three to five year cases would normally fall under Florida’s mandatory minimum laws. The former Senate President, turned lobbyist is not advocating for reforming laws for most violent crimes, however.

But he said he knows in order to really lower the incarceration rate, more morally-difficult conversations also have to occur. Haridopolos thinks it’ll be easier to reach someone BEFORE they commit escalating crimes.

“We’re trying to create that situation [where] we don’t have that second, third and fourth offense,” he said. “Because once you run into that number, it’s really hard to defend that criminal act and you start asking the question ‘can this person really be turned around?’”

The nonprofit criminal justice reporting consortiumThe Marshall Project found most people in state and federal prisons are neither first time offenders nor non-violent. But the same report also found Haridopolos’ theory has some merit: removing low-level offenders from prison would also naturally lower the violent population, too.

To listen to the full interview with former Senate President Mike Haridopolos click here to First Coast Connect’s Wednesday episode.

Ryan Benk can be reached at, 904-358-6319 or on Twitter at @RyanMichaelBenk.

Ryan Benk is a former WJCT News reporter who joined the station in 2015 after working as a news researcher and reporter for NPR affiliate WFSU in Tallahassee.