[Opinion Editorial by Rep. Shevrin Jones]
Our criminal justice system is broken. Racially unjust policing, unfair sentencing guidelines, and sentences infected with implicit bias have led to America topping the list of the most carceral nations on the planet.
Here in Florida, and in other states across the country, outdated marijuana laws written decades ago remain on the books. And as a result, the state has wasted millions in tax dollars and caused irreversible harm on lives.
Law enforcement feels compelled to focus on small infractions, including marijuana use, instead of severe, violent crime. On the other side of the coin, after being charged with possession, far too many feel the lasting impact as their student financial aid, employment opportunities, housing eligibility, or immigration status are affected. When we take away these foundational components of security, we’re capping people’s potential in life.
Communities of color in particular have been disproportionately impacted by laws governing marijuana. A 2015 report from the Sentencing Project estimated that black Americans are 3.7 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession as their white counterparts, but only 1.3 times as likely to use pot. It’s not fair. It’s not making us any safer. It’s wasting valuable resources including the time and energy of local law enforcement. And it’s taking a toll on thousands of lives every year.
That’s why I’m proud to work alongside the Florida Juvenile Justice Association and One Behavioral Health Association to introduce legislation, House Bill 25, to fix this problem. By tackling this issue, we can make our communities more equitable and safer and build upon the progress we made last year on criminal justice reform.
If passed in the 2020 session, HB 25 will amend Florida Statutes by reducing criminal penalties for possession of specified amounts of cannabis (20 grams or less) and products containing specified amounts of THC (600 milligrams or less).
Further, the bill will specify that juvenile violators of certain provisions are eligible for civil citation or pre-arrest diversion programs, prohibiting the charging of a felony or revocation of one’s driving privilege for this behavior. Upon completion of the program, the misdemeanor is removed from their record, presenting young people with a second chance. It is shocking that some Florida jurisdictions initiate felony arrests for youth possession or using vaping devices with cannabis. One thing is clear: there is a need in Florida for consistent statewide policies for handling this issue.
In recent years, 15 states have decriminalized — but not legalized — marijuana, while 11 others have fully legalized it. These states have saved money by reducing prison and jail costs and population size; freed up law enforcement resources to be used in more appropriate ways; prioritized health and safety over punishment for people who use drugs; reduced the stigma associated with drug use so that problematic drug users are encouraged to come out of the shadows and seek treatment and other support; and removed barriers to evidence-based harm reduction practices such as drug checking, heroin-assisted treatment, and medical marijuana.
As the United States grapples with the explosion of our prison population in recent years, here in Florida we have to do the work of updating our corner of the unjust system. The time is now, and transforming criminal justice requires us all to do our part. Decriminalizing marijuana is just a start. Doing so will not only make our communities safer, but can bring us one step closer to making our national creed of “liberty and justice for all” a reality.