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Advocates say DeSantis' vetoes of criminal justice reform bills reflect his presidential ambitions

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks as he announces a proposal for Digital Bill of Rights, Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023, at Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach.
Wilfredo Lee
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks as he announces a proposal for Digital Bill of Rights, Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023, at Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach.

Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed two criminal justice reform bills that had overwhelming support in the Florida Legislature — and advocates are pointing to his presidential ambitions as the reason why.

House Bill 605 passed 107-2 in the House and 38-0 in the Senate.

The bill eased restrictions for individuals seeking expungement of criminal records. It also extended the eligibility of expungement if the charging documents filed were dismissed or a judgment of acquittal was rendered by a judge.

Senate Bill 1478 passed unanimously in both the House and Senate.

That bill would have lowered the punishments for technical probation violations, like showing up late to a meeting or filling out paperwork incorrectly.

Supporters said both bills would have helped previously incarcerated individuals reintegrate into their communities.

Rep. Anna Eskamani (D-Orlando) called the vetoes "incredibly disappointing."

"These are really important criminal justice reform policies that believe in second chances and help those who are either juveniles or returning citizens have a path forward," she said.

"To see the governor veto these policies, it's very much about his presidential ambitions," Eskamani added. "He's attempting to go as conservative and far right as possible."

She said her Republican colleagues have the numbers to override any veto they want, but they don't for "fear of upsetting (DeSantis), or making him look weak on the presidential trail."

Eskamani said the recent vetoes also strip away the rights of Florida voters.

"Instead of listening to what our Floridians want, our governor is trying to appeal to a conservative, out-of-state base, and that creates this type of environment where good policies get vetoed and bad bills pass," she said.

Neil Volz is the Deputy Director for the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. He called the bills "common sense solutions" and said the vetoes are just the beginning of a long conversation surrounding reform.

"The governor is trying to get to the right of President Trump as it relates to criminal justice issues. And that brings out a debate, one that's especially pertinent because of President Trump's particular situation," he said. "He might be running for president as a convicted felon by the end of the year and that is going to propel these issues to the forefront of the conversation."

But Volz feels the governor's actions have more consequences than purely political ones.

"These bills would impact people who are on probation, people who had gotten arrested, and were trying to get their records expunged," Volz said.

"One in three people in the United States have some sort of record an arrest record or conviction. So when you think about the families and individuals impacted, lives all across the state will be and can be impacted by criminal justice policy," he added.

WUSF reached out to DeSantis' office for comment, but have not received a reply.

Copyright 2023 WUSF 89.7. To see more, visit WUSF 89.7.

Meghan Bowman
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