State Politics

Gov. Scott signs juvenile sentencing reform, other bills into law

Overhauls to juvenile sentencing and child welfare, as well as a provision allowing the concealed carry of guns during emergency evacuations, are among the 44 bills signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott on Thursday.

The governor has so far signed 81 bills passed by the Legislature before the regular session’s abrupt end in late April.

Lawmakers made a series of tweaks to child welfare laws, including requiring stricter background checks for employees of organizations like Boys and Girls Club.

Teams designed to respond to and investigate child deaths will also be made stronger, said Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood. The information those teams collect can help lawmakers continue to improve public policy to decrease child deaths.

“There’s a lot in this bill to help kids that’ll keep them out of harm’s way from these evildoers,” Sobel said.

Scott also signed legislation that supporters hope will put fewer young offenders behind bars.

Currently, juveniles arrested for some crimes are eligible for the state’s civil citation program if they haven’t been arrested before. Under the new law, police can issue a civil citation and require community service or a diversion program instead of involving the courts for up to three misdemeanor charges.

“Most of these cases don’t really require police intervention,” Archbishop of Miami Thomas Wenski, a major supporter of such legislation, told the Times/Herald earlier this year. “And when the police do intervene, rather than treating (the offenders) as the incarnation of Bonnie and Clyde, it is important to remember that they are kids.”

One of bills signed by Scott removed The Children’s Board of Hillsborough County’s concerns over an upcoming referendum that had threatened its existence. The new law eliminates a 2016 countywide vote over the board’s share of Hillsborough property taxes.

“It’s a good day for Hillsborough County,” said Kelley Parris, executive director of the board, which provide funding on behalf of children and pregnant women. “It’s a good day for the children and families of Hillsborough County.”

The governor also entered into the national debate about police officer-worn body cameras and their role in helping the public hold law enforcement accountable, signing an exemption from public disclosure requirements.

Body camera footage taken in a home, hospital, mental health institution or other place where privacy is reasonably expected will be exempted from public record laws and can be released only by the law enforcement agency or any people in the video.

Supporters like Sen. Chris Smith, D-Ft. Lauderdale, say an exemption will lead to people feeling more comfortable around police, particularly in private spaces like their homes, and could entice more departments into using the cameras, a technology favored by law enforcement and reformers alike.

“In this TMZ age that we live in,” Smith said, in reference to the gossip website, “I wanted to make sure that a person is confident to have an officer coming into their home with a body camera.”

But open-government advocates have cried foul. First Amendment Foundation executive Director Barbara Petersen has said that other privacy measures should be taken that would allow videos to be released publicly while still obscuring the identities of victims or bystanders.

The governor also approved a bill that failed last year to allow the concealed carry of guns during the first two days of emergency evacuations such as hurricanes.

Supporters say loosening the restrictions will decrease theft of weapons from unoccupied homes and could prevent otherwise lawful gunowners from facing criminal charges because they decided to bring their gun with them while evacuating.

“This is about this incredibly rare instance, this incredibly tailored instance, when people are fleeing for their lives,” said sponsor Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, debating the legislation in the Senate. “And yet Florida statute today says if they take that weapon with them and they carry it in a certain manner, they can be charged with a third-degree felony.”

Opponents, however, argued that evacuations are already high-stress, chaotic events.

“And now we want to introduce guns into that equation?” Rep. Cynthia Stafford, D-Miami, asked on the House floor last month.

Tampa Bay Times staff writer Zack Peterson contributed to this report. Contact Michael Auslen at Follow @MichaelAuslen.