Florida ACLU Says 2019 Was the State's "Worst Legislative Session in a Decade"

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis Gage Skidmore / Wikimedia Commons
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — a pile of Fourth of July fireworks that accidentally fell into a vat of radioactive ooze and gained the ability to speak — had a very good 2019 legislative session. This, of course, means that regular humans – the sort of reasonable folk who don't enjoy being bankrupted by medical bills or killed by racist mobs – had a very bad 2019 legislative session.

How bad? The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida declared yesterday that this was, by its estimation, the worst legislative session for civil rights in ten years.

"The 2019 Florida Legislative Session was the most harmful and devastating session for Floridians’ civil rights and civil liberties in a decade," the civil rights organization said in a media release. "Legislators adopted and passed anti-civil liberties bills that will tear families apart and codify racial profiling into law, bar hundreds of thousands of Floridians from voting, exacerbate the school-to-prison pipeline, and divert taxpayer dollars from public school education to fund private religious schools, while making only the most modest of reforms to our broken criminal justice system."

DeSantis' first 60-day legislative session ended Saturday. Under his administration, the Republican-dominated Legislature passed many of the items he campaigned on — a boon for the governor's far-right, Fox-News-consuming base, but, per the ACLU, a nightmare for vulnerable populations across the state.
Among other bills, the Legislature passed SB 168, a much-criticized ban on "sanctuary cities" that forces local municipalities to honor Immigration and Customs Enforcement "detainer requests" and hold immigrant detainees in local jails. (Lawmakers passed the measure despite the fact that every city in Florida already does this.)

The ACLU has long warned that ICE's detainers are illegal — the group has repeatedly challenged the detainers in court and won. In March, the ACLU reported that ICE had sent 420 incorrect detainer requests for American citizens to Miami-Dade County from 2017 to 2019. The group is suing both Miami-Dade and Monroe Counties for holding American citizens in their jails. In Monroe, for example, the ACLU sued on behalf of a man named Peter Sean Brown, whom ICE tried to deport to Jamaica even though he was born in Philadelphia and has lived his entire life in the United States.

Among other major bills, the state passed:
  • A bill that makes it harder for formerly incarcerated people to get their voting rights back after prison. The bill, lambasted as a "poll tax," forces former inmates to pay often-exorbitant court fees and fines before they can vote again.
  • A bill that siphons $130 million from public school funding to a voucher program that lets students use taxpayer money to go to private or religious schools.
  • A measure that allows teachers to carry guns in schools, which the ACLU warned could severely harm students of color or other kids who might be shot by rogue teachers. The ACLU cautioned that, while the law does increase mental-health services for Florida students, it also expands "zero tolerance" discipline policies that likely will lead to more children being harshly punished. The ACLU last week warned that despite "the evidence that discipline reforms had nothing to do with the Parkland tragedy and were combating the school-to-prison pipeline, the Florida Legislature expanded the zero-tolerance law, which requires certain offenses at schools be reported to law enforcement."
  • A law that makes it harder for everyday citizens to directly amend the Florida constitution through voter petition drives. Voters in recent years used petitions to legalize medical marijuana and give former prisoners the right to vote, two provisions that otherwise would not have passed through the Republican-led Florida Legislature.
“The Florida Legislature may want to go back in time with their unconstitutional and wrong-headed attacks on the values we share as Americans, but the people of Florida refuse to do so," Florida ACLU executive director Micah Kubic said yesterday. "Floridians have said loud and clear that they expect their elected officials to move us forward by protecting voting rights, making the state a safe and welcoming place for everyone, and building a criminal justice system that actually works. It is shameful that the Legislature not only refused to hear that message, it actively opposed and undermined it."

The ACLU noted one of the few positives was the "Florida First Step Act" — a sweeping bill that, among other provisions, makes it easier for former inmates to earn professional licenses, gives prosecutors more leeway to charge teens in juvenile instead of adult court, and, most importantly, raises the threshold for felony theft from $300 to $750, which lowers the number of people facing five or more years in prison for small levels of theft. But, the ACLU says, that law likely won't do enough good to offset the harm caused by many of the other bills passed this year.

"We still have a lot of work left to do before our state has a fair and equitable criminal justice system," Florida ACLU political director Kirk Bailey said.

In fact, activists hated some of this year's bills so much that they staged an unusually loud protest at the Florida capitol last week, mere days before the session ended. One activist was reportedly arrested, while another, Miamian Tomas Kennedy, said he was banned from entering the capitol building for 12 months.
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.