The Appeal: Political Report previews Florida’s gubernatorial primaries.

Daniel Nichanian

Florida’s wide-open gubernatorial race will determine who wields the veto pen over the next four years and will shape the field of legislative possibilities. A coalition that aims to curb mass incarceration has gained some legislative traction, but one of the two Republican front-runners—Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam—has vowed to veto reform bills and to “defend tough prison sentencing guidelines for all felony offenses.”

The five major Democratic candidates are singing a different tune. Andrew Pantazi recently reported on the gulf between Putnam and Democrats in a Florida Times-Union article that goes over their criminal justice platforms in detail. (The second Republican front-runner, Representative Ron DeSantis, “has been virtually silent on the issue,” writes Pantazi, a strategy that DeSantis has actually employed across the board.)

All Democrats want to loosen marijuana laws and scale back Florida’s “truth in sentencing” system; all also “agree that judges need more discretion, that mandatory minimum laws need to be reformed, and private prisons should be eliminated,” Pantazi writes. But they diverge over the scope and specificity of their proposals. This is visible in Pantazi’s report as well as in their answers to a Miami Herald questionnaire. While I can’t do justice to all of their contrasts within this newsletter, here are some examples:

  • Some candidates present their aim as lowering the incarceration rate of nonviolent offenders specifically. This would only go so far in promoting decarceration given the composition of Florida’s prisons. Pantazi describes former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine and businessman Chris King as “reluctant to extend reforms to violent crimes.”
  • Some of their proposals bank on change emanating from the discretion of prosecutors and judges rather than from new legislative restraints. For instance, Representative Gwen Graham wants prosecutors to go through an internal review process before charging young people as adults.
  • Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, King, and Levine all propose legalizing marijuana for recreational use; Graham and businessman Jeff Greene have talked of decriminalizing it.

The most immediate issue that the gubernatorial nominees will need to address is Amendment 4, which is on the November ballot: This initiative would enable people who complete a felony sentence to have their voting rights restored. It would affect more than one million currently disenfranchised Floridians.
The Democratic candidates all unequivocally support Amendment 4, while the Republicans both oppose it. (In fact, in 2011 Putnam voted to add new restrictions to Florida’s already-harsh disenfranchisement rules.) It could matter just how vocal the eventual GOP nominee makes his opposition during the general election: Amendment 4 needs 60 percent to pass, a high threshold that requires that some GOP-leaning voters back it at the polls.