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Policy Reform in Action

Season 1, Episode 12

In today's episode we're joined by Kara Gross, Legislative Director and Senior Policy Counsel with the ACLU, who gives valuable insight into their legislative efforts nationally and here in Florida. Listen in as we discuss laws that support the cradle to prison pipeline, the Tammy Jackson act, Rehabilitation credits, conviction integrity review units and so much more...

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[Intro music]

Noelle: Whaaaaat up?!

Miranda: Welcome to The Unpacked Project

Noelle: We’re your hosts-I’m Noelle

Miranda: And I'm Miranda.

Noelle: We're here to explore all things social justice. It's through casual conversations, interviews, and story telling that we hope to inspire others to take action towards a more compassionate and equitable world.

Miranda: 'Cause honestly it kinda sucks here sometimes.

Noelle: For real, we can do better people.

Miranda: Alright, let's start unpacking.

[Music plays]

 

Kara Gross is the Legislative Director and Senior Policy Counsel for the ACLU of Florida. She advocates for statewide legislation and policies defending and advancing Civil Rights and liberties. Her work primarily focuses on three main campaigns: criminal justice reform, immigrants rights and voting rights, in addition to advocating for reproductive justice and LGBTQ rights. She previously served as Senior Assistant General Counsel for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Associate Director of Legal Programs at the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, and prior to moving to Florida, she was a Litigation Associate at Morgan Lewis and Debevoise and Plimpton in New York City. She is admitted to practice in Florida, New York, New Jersey, and my personal favorite, the US Supreme Court.

 

Noelle  

Kara, thank you so much for being here with us today. So the American Civil Liberties Union or ACLU, it's a national organization, we know they’re state chapters as well. So can you explain some of the issues that the National ACLU campaigns for in general, and and just more about the work that you're doing right now?

 

Kara Gross  

Yeah, sure. And first, just thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it and I'm honored to be here talking with you, so thank you. So the ACLU has a national office, and then we have affiliate offices in each of the states and also Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia. And I'm with the ACLU of Florida, and I'm based in Florida's capital, Tallahassee. And throughout Florida, we have several different offices, our main office being Miami, we also have one in Tampa and in Jacksonville and in Pensacola. And we have the same sort of general issues as the National and all the affiliates, right? So our general issue is protecting the individual rights and liberties guaranteed by the Constitution and the laws in the United States. And all of the affiliates and National work together in courts, and the legislature and communities, to protect civil rights and civil liberties and to defend against those attacks. And we do this nationally, and also statewide, and also locally. And it depends on your affiliates. Some affiliates are larger than others, and some of them are smaller than others, but we're all fighting for the same types of work. Our priority campaign areas are criminal justice reform, immigrants rights, voting rights, reproductive justice, LQBTQ rights and free speech and privacy. And our Florida affiliate has been most heavily engaged recently in three campaigns, which are criminal justice, immigrants rights and voting rights.

 

Miranda  

Beautiful, beautiful. So you know Kara, in the beginning of our season we discussed inequities within our education system, specifically the cradle to prison pipeline and the need for reform. Now with Florida prosecuting, unfortunately, more children in the adult courts than any other state in this country, projects such as No Place for a Child and Keep Kids Learning are vital. Can you tell us more about our youth prosecution rates and the need for programs such as these projects?

 

Kara Gross  

Yeah, sure. So you know, you're exactly right. So Florida prosecutes more children as adults than any other state. And, you know, it's a pretty basic principle that, you know, kids don't belong in adult prisons...period. But yet, Florida has not quite figured that out. For the past 10 years, more than 14,000 children, some as young as 10 years old, have been arrested. And in 2018/2019, close to 900 children were prosecuted as adults. And this process of charging children as adults is called Direct File. So you might have heard people talk about Direct File. It's a kind of weird term, but basically, it's the direct prosecution of a child as an adult. And Florida, like I said, does this more than any other state and in 2016, we actually Direct Filed more youth than California, Texas, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Michigan combined.

 

Noelle  

Our mouths are widely open listeners.

 

Miranda  

I have goosebumps! Oh my God, I just can't believe that.

 

Kara Gross  

Yeah, it's...it's outstanding, and it gets worse. So, Florida is one of the only states that allows children to be prosecuted as an adult without any involvement whatsoever by a judge. So there's no judicial involvement in the decision to prosecute a child as an adult.

 

Noelle  

Is that legal? 

 

Miranda  

Yeah?!?

 

Noelle  

Oh my God.

 

Miranda  

So then how does that work? Right? So who...what?!

 

Kara Gross  

Yeah. So in Florida, it is the sole discretion of a prosecutor to decide to prosecute a child as an adult. We are one of the only states that does not have any judicial involvement in that process. And so this is something that is huge. Because judges, you know, their job, is to weigh facts, to make judgments, and to look at the findings and look at the evidence and to determine things, right? So a judge would be able to determine, should this minor based on the offense, based on their maturity, based on their age, based on their economic factors, based on their family background? Should they be, you know, in adult prison? Or should they go to a juvenile detention center? So like, that's something a judge could weigh and could do if a judge was involved in the decision, but a judge is not involved in the decision. It's just a prosecutor who has sole discretion. And therein lies why we are the state that has more children prosecuted than any other board and prosecuted as adults than any other state. So it's--

 

Noelle  

I'm also like, when is it ever okay? Like, it just seems like--

 

Miranda  

Well yeah, and you know, you think about--even with judges, there's still a lot of issues around that, right? And percentages of youth being tried as adults there.

 

Kara Gross  

Absolutely. Absolutely, yeah. And yeah, exactly. And when is it ever okay? You know, Florida doesn't have a minimum age of when it's okay, first of all. I'm sure that you guys remember last year with Kaia Rolle, she was a six year old, she was arrested at school. We tried at the legislature to enact a bill after that, that says let's not arrest kids under 12. And they were like, no. And then we're like--okay, how about not arrest kids under 10? And they were like, no. They wouldn't even pass legislation that says we won't arrest kids under 6.

 

Noelle  

I wasn't even that low. I'm like, anything under 18. Like, this never--doesn't seem right.

 

Kara Gross  

Yeah, it is crazy. And so, as you can imagine, there's been a lot of work at the legislature amongst ACLU of Florida, Southern Poverty Law Center, tons of different partner organizations to try and change these laws. And you had asked about No Place for a Child. And so No Place for a Child is a campaign that lots of different partisan organizations, not prison organizations and organizations are working on to try and disrupt the enormous prosecution of children as adults. So there's sort of several prongs that we're trying to do that under, one would be changing our current statutes so that you need to have judicial review, so there has to be a due process hearing involved in the decision. So even if the prosecutor recommends that, there should at least be a judicial determination to see whether we do that or not. So that has been a piece of legislation we continue to push every year, and we get pushed back on every year. And it goes nowhere, because the prosecuting association doesn't want to lose their power to make these determinations on their own. And they're very powerful at the state legislature. So that creates a big roadblock for us. Yeah, and then the other thing I wanted to mention was that the number of children that are prosecuted as adults is not equal on all children, right. So children of Color, youth of Color, Black children in particular, are much more likely to be prosecuted as adults as they are to be arrested, as they are, to, in any way shape or form find their way into our criminal justice system. And that has been a--you wonder, I don't want to say that it's been an effect our laws, I think that our laws, that racial bias is baked into our system and because of that, we see over policing of Black communities and also over policing in schools that are primarily have a makeup of children of Color leading to arrests. So yeah, there's a lot of work to be done.

 

Noelle  

Yes, I mean, we've talked about in previous episodes, you know a lot about that in regards to the school to prison pipeline and just the disproportionality that we're seeing in our education system. And then how, you know, our education system is really, this microcosm of what's happening in the larger society, right, and how this feeds to these children who become offenders at such a young age, I hate using that word, but that's, you know, with them, and then the likelihood that they're going to just wind up, you know, in the cycle of the system, never making it out. So, you know, we've been discussing a lot about criminal justice reform, you know, mass incarceration, clearly a nationwide epidemic, but yet again, Florida's numbers are really true outliers. You know, the amount of taxpayer dollars needed to keep people locked up went from 2.4 billion in 2018 to 2.7 billion this year. I'm really driven by court orders to provide adequate health care and mental health services for an ageing prison population. So you know, that doesn't even count the tens of millions of dollars spent housing more than 50,000 people in county jails daily. So can you discuss just the impact of this in our state?

 

Kara Gross  

Yeah, the impact is huge. You know, Florida's criminal legal system, it's one of the harshest in the nation. So not just on the prosecuting of children as adults, but in the length of sentences that we delve out. There was just something last week about--I encourage people to Google it, about how Florida had the longest sentence for somebody convicted of a marijuana offense, I think it was 99 years. And so the longest sentence in the country.

 

Noelle  

Our mouths are just perpetually open this entire episode, it's so embarrassing.

 

Kara Gross  

Yeah, it's terribly embarrassing and it's horrible. And, you know, these are real people's lives that are affected. So you could say it's 96,000 people, but what does that mean? I mean, 96,000 people in prison, right? So everybody in prison probably has a family on the outside, they have children, they have spouses, they have mothers, they have fathers, right? So the impact is so much greater than just the individuals who are incarcerated. You know, you have children whose parents are incarcerated and they are growing up without parents, without their primary caregivers, they may end up in foster care because of that. You have parents whose youth, you know, whether they're 18, whether they were 16 and prosecuted as an adult, or you know, whether they're 20, whatever they are, they're still their children, right? And their children are being raised in prison. And the people who are raising them are people that have been in there for maybe 20 years, 30 years. And so the impact on this is devastating, not just for the individuals, but for entire communities, and entire family systems and structures. And it perpetuates itself. Right? So if you are raised without your parents, because your parent's been arrested, if you grow up visiting your parent in jail, I mean, all of those things really impact you, your life, your community and your sense of your ability to achieve in the world. So, you know, the impact is huge. It's crazy because criminal justice is one of the few things that the left and the right, and nonpartisan groups can all sort of come together on, in some ways more than most of the other issues that the ACLU works on. I mean, a lot of our other issues, LGBTQ rights, reproductive justice, you're just not going to get a lot of bipartisan support on those unfortunately. But criminal justice because it costs so much money, like you said $2.7 billion a year, that gets the attention of a lot of people on the right because they don't want to spend taxpayer money. And it is a waste of taxpayer resources. You know, prison should be a last resort for people, but instead in Florida, it's kind of the go to, right? It's like--you misbehave, you do something, we'll lock you up. And because prison sentences are so excessive in Florida, you have people going to prison for years upon years upon years. And you know, to some people who aren't directly impacted by the system, if you haven't spent a day in prison, a month, in prison a year in prison, you might think--oh, well that offense, five years. Oh, that offense--10 years, because they're just sort of numbers to people, but 10 years of a 20 year olds life is pretty much--those are the years, right? Like, you go in, kind of just finished your teens and you come out 30? You know, how are you supposed to get a job? How are you supposed to work? How are you supposed to--you know? You've missed those formative years. So it's, you know...it's devastating. And with the economy being what it is right now, we really, really, really hope that the governor will wake up to this, and will try and--if not for the just basic humanity of people, which he has not expressed an interest, we hope that he would at least try and look at some cost saving measures, which would be reducing our overcrowded prison population.

 

Miranda  

Most definitely, you know thing is, you serve your time and then you get out and you're still punished, right? So you can only hold certain jobs, you're--well in some states, still, your voting rights are taken away, you know, like, all of these things that you still have to deal with. So it's just perpetuated over the years after prison. It's just, I mean, it breaks my heart. We can talk about that forever. But you know, something else that we often forget about is also pregnancy while in prison. Women are in need of prenatal care, whether you're in prison or not. And some prisons also offer childcare for 18 months. So then there's staffing and programming costs, post pregnancy care, things like that. And again, they're all additions to our nation's growing prison budget, but a bigger concern is safety for both the mother and the child. A recent win here in Florida, which is nice to talk about despite all these negatives that we're talking about, was the Tammy Jackson act, which originated from the Dignity for Incarcerated Women bill, can you share more about this act and what it means for incarcerated women and some of the underlying challenges that we still face in this area?

 

Kara Gross  

Yes, I will be happy to. So I'm glad you brought this up because, you know, this is something that I think Floridians, and everybody just really needs to know about. So Tammy Jackson Act is after Tammy Jackson. So she was arrested for a pretty minor offense, I believe it was trespassing and maybe a drug charge. And while she was in jail she was pregnant. And while she was in jail, she went into labor and she was forced to give birth by herself alone in solitary confinement. And that is just outrageous. I mean, that should never happen. I mean, you have somebody that goes to jail for a pretty minor offense. They're in jail, not prison, they haven't been convicted of anything. So they are innocent in the eyes of the law, they've just been charged with something.

 

Miranda  

Supposedly.

 

Kara Gross  

Supposedly, right? And yet, we have a system today, right? Like our current system creates a situation where a woman could be forced to give birth alone in solitary confinement in jail. That happened, right? So the Tammy Jackson Act was passed because everybody recognized that that's important and that we shouldn't live in a society where those kinds of things can go on, right? I mean, anybody who hears that thinks that should never have happened. So there were some legislation that was filed to protect pregnant women in prison and in the typical fashion of our legislature, they kept whittling away at the broader protections that were originally supposed to be in the act. And whittled, and whittled, and whittled, and whittled. And so the act that was finally passed, which as you said was great because we did--the one criminal justice reform that was passed, the Tammy Jackson Act. It was passed. unanimously, so that was great. And it said that if you are basically a woman in labor, that you can't be in solitary confinement and you need to be transported to a hospital. So that's fabulous. Right? But the context of that is that they narrowed it so much that the woman has to be in labor. Right? And so, I've been in labor before I have kids, right, you know, it could be a long process, right? Like, you don't really know when it is, and this and that. There's a lot of pain involved in that, right? Like, you shouldn't, we shouldn't have a system that is designed to be like--oh, let me check how close her contracts are to decide whether we take her to the hospital, right? And that is the narrowness of the bill that our majority legislators and the governor were willing to sign. And then, to make matters worse, so it was passed, it went into effect and--Phew. At least that horrific thing that happened, no one will ever have to be forced to have a child by themselves alone in a cell, because this passed. Can't believe we needed a law like that, but apparently we did. It was passed. Went into effect July 1st, 3 months later, same jail, woman forced to give birth alone in her cell. 3 months later, September, we are here. So, you know, you just kind of think to yourself, like I can't believe we even need a law like this in the first place. I can't let this happen once, you pass the law, and then it happens again, in the same jail 3 months later.

 

Miranda  

Yeah. Well, because you know, where's the accountability right? Where are the checks and balances? Who's coming in? You know, you think about prison culture and I would assume that she was in solitary to protect her, which is absurd, right? And then we think about, well, what if she's having prenatal health issues? Does she get to go visit a doctor or go to the hospital if that's the case?

 

Noelle  

That's what I was thinking, like, there's so much that happens during labor and when women are delivering.

 

There's so much that can happen, and then what if she's bleeding? You know, then like you said, she wasn't even convicted! So then we need to think about the bail, you know, like bail reform, right. And that--

 

Well, even if you've been convicted and you're sitting in prison, I mean that shouldn't even be what we're considering, like...you're in our system and we still need to keep you alive and healthy. And that's something that's come up and other other episodes, just the inhumanity that's happening, even if somebody is convicted. And we've talked about people sitting in prison that were falsely convicted and that being a whole separate topic that we actually do discuss on some of our episodes, but it's just so sad, it is heartbreaking. And, you know, unfortunately like you said, Florida tends to use this as the go to rather than having it be sort of a last effort, or we've tried this and we've tried that, and that's the sad part. And many states are saving millions of dollars by finding alternatives to incarceration such as treatment programs for people suffering from substance use You know, even in the Tammy Jackson one, I mean, she was arrested on a drug charge. How do we know she didn't need treatment, even while pregnant potentially? Or funding better reentry programs to keep people who are released from backsliding. And importantly, I think people think of those things and think that we're not going to prevent crime, but you know, the important thing is that none of those states that are doing that mention any big crime waves that happen as a result, and they're actually able to use the saved money to stimulate the economy and provide better community resources. And unfortunately, here in Florida, we just keep investing in this failed system that we know does not work. So you know, one of the most impactful changes proposed is increasing the amount of good behavior and rehabilitation credits that can be earned and applied for reducing an individual's sentence. So can you explain what exactly that is and how that works?

 

Kara Gross  

Yeah, I'm really glad you brought that up because that is something that we and partner organizations have been really trying to reform in our current statutes. So as you said, Florida has spent decades relying on incarceration as the solution to mental health issues, to poverty, to addiction. It has resulted in this overpopulated eonian prison system that's warehousing tens of thousands of people at enormous taxpayer expense. And we do next to nothing, so we're spending $2.7 billion, but we're doing next to nothing to rehabilitate anybody. So we're literally warehousing people we're just, you know, we are wasting away their livelihood. And the thing about prison is that most people eventually come home to their communities and are released unless you're there, you know, in Florida, under the death sentence, or if you have life, but most people come home. And so what is that? You know, it's no surprise that when people have gotten no services while they're in prison, they've been there year, after year, after year, after year, literally being warehoused doing nothing, they've gained no skills to keep up with society in any way, shape, or form, they probably didn't have a great education on the front end. Another 40 years later, you're setting people up for failure. And it's no surprise that the recidivism rate is pretty high. Right? So we are just throwing money at a broken system that's not keeping communities safer, because we're doing next to nothing to help them have the tools they need when they get out, right? So one of the things we've talked about is how Florida is kind of the worst in so many ways, this is another example of where we're the worst. Most states have the ability to, you know, if you have good behavior, and if you work hard, and if you get an education, if you do rehabilitative programming, you can earn time off your sentence, right? And that is a great thing because it incentivizes the individual to work hard and to get out, right. And so that's what you want, you want shorter sentences, efficient sentencing, you want people to have hope and motivation, you want them to turn their lives around. And then you want them to go home and contribute to their society and to be members of the community. Florida is the worst.

 

Noelle  

Here we go... 

 

Kara Gross  

Here we go...we cap the amount--it's a little confusing, but basically, Florida has a cap on the amount of rehabilitation credits that you can earn and apply towards early release on your sentence. And that cap amount is 15%. And so what that means is that even if you--in other states that don't have that 15% cap, so let me see I got some good stuff here, but Florida has one of the lowest caps at 15%, whereas some other southern states have 40%, 50%, 70%. So, Texas allows individuals to earn up to 51% off their sentence. 

 

Miranda  

Like, come on Florida. Texas!?

 

Kara Gross  

Texas, right? I'm not talking California, I'm not talking New York...Texas. We allow 15% off, they allow 51% off. Mississippi allows individuals to earn 50% off theirs. South Carolina allows individuals to earn [unknown audio] and those states, they have reduced crime. So why are we keeping people in prison longer, not allowing them to rehabilitate themselves, not providing incentives to do so, and spending more money wasting taxpayer dollars keeping them in prison? You know, the system is not working for anyone. Only 6% of our incarcerated individuals receive any type of programming while they're in prison. 6%. So, um, what we're pushing for the legislature is to get rid of this 15% cap, to change it, to reform it, to adjust it, anything that we can do to bring us more in line with what other states are doing. Allow people to earn time off their sentence for good behavior, for getting an education, for vocational skills, or mental health treatment, for drug addiction treatment, allow you to earn time off if you've done those things successfully. And then you will be better set up to return back to your community, you'll have the tools that you need to successfully reintegrate, and you'll be less likely to recidivate and more likely to be able to get a job. And you know, it's kind of a win win because it would save the state--now let me get to this part. So the state's own estimate from their own estimating impact conference said that it would save the state $860 million over five years if they were to make this change. And you know, it's a budget crisis right now. Right? The governor is looking for places to save money. Here is one reform that could put us more in line with every other state and can save $860 million. I encourage everybody to reach out to the governor.

 

Miranda  

Oh, we will be. You know, and the thing is, you clearly brought up that other states are doing this. And with so much reform in general, even aside from this, we see that other states, other communities, are doing this differently and it's working. So we don't need to reinvent the wheel. We know that it works. We know the benefits that come out of it if we do. And for whatever reason, some people still just don't want to change.

 

Noelle  

I think we know the reason.

 

Miranda  

Well, yeah. I mean...yeah.

 

Noelle  

I think that can't be ignored, right? Like, that's something that we talk about on so many episodes about bias within our systems. Like if all of this makes sense, from a monetary perspective, from a human rights perspective, from a perspective of people being able to participate in our economy when they come out and be productive citizens. And I'm personally just having a hard time figuring out aside from like, bias and racism and all these other things that we talk about, what else it could be. 

 

Kara Gross  

Yeah. Well, you know, exactly. And I think that the idea--I did a talk recently about consequences of prison, right, and sort of what happens with having a felony conviction, you know. The idea that it's harder for you to get a loan, it's harder for you to go to school, it's harder for you to get a job, it's harder for you to vote, right. So, all of these things that help you integrate into your community. And then the main one being getting a job and being able to independently exist in the world, all of that stems from felony convictions. And we talk about these as collateral consequences and literature about them, but that phrasing of it makes it seem like it's sort of something that happens because of it, right. But you got to kind of think about it--these aren't collateral. I mean, they're not the main thing, the main thing is you're going to jail. But those are intended consequences, right? That doesn't naturally have to flow from being arrested, we have laws in place that make that flow, we have laws in place that make it so you can't vote, we have laws in place that make it so you can't get a job, we have laws in place that make it so you can't get a loan. So that's not just some collateral consequence, or some consequence that flows from it. It is the intent of our laws and our criminal justice system.

 

Miranda  

Yeah, I mean, back from the beginning. You know, our second, third episode was on systemic racism and how it's embedded in society after slavery, and it's the exact same thing. Free labor. You know, we want to restrict your voting rights. We want to maintain power, you know. I mean,that's literally what it is. And so you talked a little bit about rehabilitation credits, reducing the 15% cap, and then the taxpayer benefit, but what would the impact on the prison population be?

 

Kara Gross  

Yeah, I mean, the impact on the prison population would be enormous, right? So, I mean, the idea that there's 96,000 individuals in prison, and depending on how any legislation is crafted, right, if it was crafted to allow people to earn, say, 35% off when we just said Texas is like 50 and South Carolina. So even if this was like, 35, right, split the baby or split the difference. That alone was 860 million, and the report said that that would reduce I think, 10,000 prison beds. Right, so about 10,000 individuals for that difference, but that's a really conservative estimate because that was all based on whether or not--and this gets a little confusing, but those estimates and that $860 million amount was based on whether you were to get 65% for nonviolent crimes. And so in every other state they don't make a difference. You know, they just said--okay, you could get a certain amount off and they have different gradations or whatever. In our state, Florida, we said--well, we're gonna make you serve this certain amount no matter what your offense is. So in other states you don't even have a cap if it's a certain type of offense, right? Like that only happens if you have something harms another person. In Florida, our definition of what's violent and what's non violent doesn't make any sense. So we call things violent crimes when they are not what you would think of as violent. And by doing that, we exclude a lot of individuals from getting benefits in our statues. So, Florida considers burglary of an unoccupied building to be a violent crime. And so the statue that would give this benefit of earning gain time, you wouldn't get it because that's a violent crime. But that's not a violent. But that's how Florida statute defines it. And this is really important in so many different levels because what the legislature is often saying, what the governor says is, well, these are "violent people" in prison, they're there on violent crimes. But if you define violence so broadly that it means burglary of an unoccupied dwelling, well, where do you draw the line? And so, yeah, it's just, it's a lot of semantics and a lot of

 

Miranda  

Oh, you know, and then I think about, you know, our governor uses that language. I didn't realize that that was a thing, how they classified. And I feel like I'm fairly read up on things. I'm fairly knowledgeable. So people are just listening to this information-- yeah, they are violent offenders. But actually, no.

 

Noelle  

Well I think that's the narrative of our president.

 

Miranda  

I mean, of course, yeah. 

 

Kara Gross  

Yeah.

 

Noelle  

I mean, you know, that's the narrative that's created and people, people believe it. Like you'll hear people say--you know, well, you just shouldn't commit crimes. I don't even know if people in their heads, like lay people even differentiate for themselves violent versus non violent, there are a lot of people out there that just think--you committed a crime, you go to prison, and we don't really care. Follow the law, you know? But not really understanding all those different layers, that

 

Kara Gross  

Except of course when they commit something that is a crime, they don't want to go to jail, right? Oh, sorry. That was just just an accident. I didn't mean it that way. Wasn't intentional. Yeah.

 

Noelle  

But white collar crime, that could be, again, a whole other episode. People actually criminalizing in this country. There's plenty of people and companies stealing lots of money from lots of people and they're not getting sentences and sitting in jail unless they want to make an example of someone.

 

Kara Gross  

That's a perfect example because you know, up until recently in Florida it was a felony to steal something over $300. Okay. I'm just gonna say again, Florida, Florida, Florida. In Texas, the threshold for a felony was $2,500. Okay. So if you steal something $2,500, you get a felony in Texas, if you feel something $300, you get a felony in Florida. And so--oh, my gosh! That means so many people are felons. So many more people in jail, so many more people don't have their right to vote. You know, it's all connected. And so, just two sessions ago, after years of trying to get the threshold raised from $300, we were able to get the legislature to agree to raise it to $750. So it is still one of the WORST in the country. 

 

Miranda  

I hate it here Kara!!

 

Kara Gross  

You know, they pat themselves on the back and say--we did criminal justice reform! We're great!

 

Noelle  

Listen, on the side right now I'm looking at apartments in New York and I'm going back!

 

 I want to go back to California.

 

Kara Gross  

Exactly. Texas is better than we are.

 

Noelle  

Yeah. And well, you know,  there's so many of these topics that are embedded within the system--the rehabilitation credits, even allowing people to become educated in prison and provide different programs while they're in there. Non prison sanctions, it's another area of legislation that seems to have died. So can you explain prison sentence thresholds and the impact of potential legislation if that was passed?

 

Kara Gross  

Yeah, yeah, of course. Yeah. So prison threshold--so in Florida we have a score sheet, right? And so anytime you commit a crime, you get points. And then you look at the points and you see what the score is. And if the points are over 44, right, then you go to prison. If your points are under 22, then you can get a non state prison sanction. And non state prison sanction means that  you still committed a felony, right? But you can't go to prison. We're not going to send you to prison, we're going to send you to something else. That's something else might be, you know, one day short of a year in jail, because jail is not prison. It could be probation, it could be community service. It could be--it could be a range of lots of things. But it's something that is not prison, which is good, right? We want to keep people out of prison. So, what this bill would have done would have changed  those point thresholds that 44 and that 22. There's a bunch of different legislation, we try this every year. But basically, there was one bill that would have increased the 22 points to 44. So everybody who gets below 44, would not have to go to prison, that would be fabulous. That of course, did not pass because nothing passes, because the governor and the majority party who leads the state of Florida does not want to do anything about criminal justice reform. And so even though there's tons of great bills that are being filed every year, and tons of amazing people who are trying to push these reforms, unless the leaders--the governor, and the Speaker of the House and the Senate President, you know, unless the people who really, you know, those three people are on board with it, it's not going to happen. And so one of the other bills would have raised the 44 points to 52 points, right. And made it a higher threshold in order to automatically have to go. And so the difference between those two is more discretionary. Right. So one point, you can't go at all to prison, the other you have to go to prison. But this raises that whole thing about this whole point system and about racial disparities in our criminal justice system at every stage right, so from policing, to arrest, to prosecution to initial sentence, to how you're treated once you're in prison. But your points are often based on what your past is, right? So you could do the same offense as someone else today, but if you have a criminal history, and they don't, they're going to get lower points because each time you've got something it's going to build up your points, right. And so Black and brown communities are policed more, they're arrested more, and they're convicted more. So they will have higher points, just in general, because of their history of being over policed and prosecuted. And so there's just continuous entry points for Black and brown communities to be funneled into the criminal justice system that often don't exist for White communities.

 

Miranda  

Well, you know, so much of what we've spoken about really just comes down to human rights, you know? So why is it that a woman has to give birth in solitary confinement? Why is she giving birth in her cell? Why is a six year old being arrested, right? And really, you talk about what prison culture looks like, and just the treatment of folks in prison in general. And part of the issue really is a lack of mercy and understanding for people, in addition to improper procedural safeguards in our criminal justice system. So can you speak on the conviction integrity review units and the impact of  legislation in this area?

 

Kara Gross  

Yeah, sure. So first thing I want to mention is you're exactly right. I mean, the issue really comes down to human dignity, mercy, seeing someone's humanity. And that's exactly what's missing from our criminal justice system right now, or criminal legal system, because there's really no justice in it. You mentioned about the treatment in prisons, and I should have mentioned this earlier, but you know, one of the amazing things, Florida again, is that it's hot here. And the majority of our prisons have no air conditioning. So they are overpopulated, people are filled together, pushed together, in bunks, in units, bunk beds on bunk beds, and there's no air conditioning. And so can you imagine, when your air conditioning, when you have air conditioning, and it breaks, it's like, kind of a big deal to be without it for like you-- 

 

Miranda  

Big deal. Drop everything, get this fixed. Now.

 

Kara Gross  

Big deal, a really big deal. Right? Right. And these are people that are in prison, not for a week, not for two weeks. For years. Years, and years, and years and years. Years. And no air conditioning. And so it's just--the inhumanity of that. And some of these people are there because they've done something pretty minor but the points racked up because there's been a bunch of little minor things, right. And that's what happens. And, you know, you don't believe that today in this day and age, that we are forcing people to live in cages, without air conditioning, for year after year after year. And then you throw on top of that COVID. So, when COVID hit everybody warned the governor that this was going to be a disaster in prisons, and that prisons are basically a petri dish, that there's literally no way for incarcerated individuals to practice social distancing because they cannot be six feet away from people at all times, right? They just can't because there's just not room. And there's issues with not getting masks until later, and not having hot water, and not having soap and hand sanitizer, because they don't let you have hand sanitizer because there's some small alcohol percentage, like all this stuff. But you really talk about, the governor has just really abandoned everybody who's sitting in prisons. We knew that Covid would spread, you know, it's a petri dish there for illness to spread. And it did. And you have almost 20% of the prison population has tested positive. And that's just the people that have tested. Not everybody's been tested. It's just a complete, reckless disregard for humanity. And that's what's happening in our prison system. So going back to the mercy, wanted to make sure I mentioned that. Sorry, this is not the most uplifting conversation.

 

Miranda  

But an important one to have. It's real. And it's important to have and a lot of people don't realize these things are going on.

 

Kara Gross  

Yeah, exactly. So conviction integrity reviews, which you asked about. Those are incredibly important, right. So they review whether or not an individual has been wrongfully incarcerated. And if there is a finding of wrongful incarceration, then they are able to address that by having the person be released from prison. They're amazing. We only have five of them. We have five in our 20--we have 20 judicial circuits in Florida, and five of them have conviction integrity review units. There was legislation last year and year after year, to make it so that all 20 judicial circuits had to have conviction integrity review units. And, of course, that legislation never got a hearing, didn't go anywhere. You know, so they're excellent to have, everybody should have them, every circuit should have them. Our legislative attempts, again, if the governor doesn't want it to happen, it doesn't happen.

 

Noelle  

And, you know, we've talked a lot about things that could happen, that aren't happening here, that would be very helpful. So, if you could reimagine legislation--I would imagine you have worked on lots of different pieces of legislation and programs that could really improve the system. So if you could sort of reimagine this to be more just in an equitable world in general, but then specifically within this criminal legal system, you know, how do we get there? And what does it look like?

 

Kara Gross  

Yeah, yeah, good questions. You know, well, first of all, I think that our elected leaders need to be on board or we need to have different elected leaders. Right? So I can't--it's hard to imagine getting there right now, with who's running the show in Florida. Because the governor has been incredibly resistant to any of these reforms, you know, the Senate president and the Speaker of the House, those key players aren't interested, it's not gonna happen. So in terms of imagining it, I have to imagine different people sitting in those seats. But if I could imagine a world where we could do this, it would have to be--we need a comprehensive criminal justice reform movement. Like, we can't just sort of fix something that sounds outrageous here and fix something that sounds outrageous there. Because the whole thing is outrageous, right? We just don't see it. And so it doesn't play into our every day. And so therefore, it's easy to just be like--well, okay, I'm not going to work on that, I'm going to work on this problem. And that perpetuates itself. In order for us to really have criminal justice reform, we need to have the people that are making the laws and enforcing the laws, people who have been subject to the criminal justice system, because we have a system right now where everybody--lawmakers, and law enforcement. Law enforcement is basically seemingly above the law, right? Like they can never be held accountable for their actions. That is what we see time and time again. So they enforce something that they don't have to have any accountability for, they don't know what it's like to be in prison for 5 years, or 10 years, for 20 years. They don't know because it's not going to happen to them, because they pretty much are "above the law" in the way that they are allowed to escape immunity. Same with our legislators, very few legislators have been directly impacted by the criminal legal system. Our laws are designed so that if you have a felony, if you've been in prison, you can't be an elected official in many positions, right? So it creates the very barrier that we need in order to have just laws, right? You have to have somebody who's been there say--nobody needs 10 years, 5 years is enough pretty much for everybody, right? 5 years of your life, that should be the default max. And then let's see. And, obviously, there are some situations that are so heinous and so horrible that that will fall into another camp, right? But if you're not talking about those specific crimes, if you're talking about what most of the prisons today are made up of, 5 years is a really long time. Or at least we should review everybody after it, you know, what I mean? Like, that is something, having somebody spend 30 years or 40 years, I mean, I talk to people all the time, a lot of I talked to a lot of mothers who've had their kids in prison for 20 years, and, sometimes their offense--I have this one lovely woman that I just feel terrible for because her son had a drug addiction problem. And he stole something--he stole a wallet from somebody, and had less than $300 in it at the time. And he went to prison for life. And you think, how could that possibly happen? How could that happen? That must be a mistake, but it's not a mistake, that's what happened. You know, I don't really have much to say about it, that's what happened. You know, the reason it happened is because we have a law that says that we have this prison release reoffender law, and if you've offended twice in three years, and your second offense, you could end up in jail for life. And his first offense was within three years, he was also a minor at the time. So you know, our system is so unjust that unless you have people that have been through it, reviewing everything, and changing everything, it's really hard to imagine how we make it better.

 

Miranda  

Well, and that's such an important piece, you know, the people--I think of organizations, right? And, and are folks higher up talking to the people that are actually doing the work. And so you sort of think about this in the same way, right? We have folks that are making these laws, and are you really talking to and connecting people that have served time and have been in this environment and really know best? It makes me think of Adam Foss with Prosecutor Impact, we'd spoke to him. And really, he's all about prosecution reform. And they work with fellows that have been imprisoned, and they are responsible for--they've gone through restorative practices, restorative justices within the prison, the prison workers, prison guards, you know, everyone in there is also going through this program to really just understand what it is, and how we fix this, and how we better prosecute as well, right, because they hold so much power. So really kind of makes me think about that. And, you know, in general, so much of the season has really been an introduction and exploration of the challenges that we face in this fight for social justice, but legislation, it really has a strong action piece tied to it. So what are some suggestions for us to be more involved at a local level in law reform?

 

Kara Gross  

Yeah, I'm glad you asked that, because this is sort of--the most important piece is how we change it right? And, you know, obviously, vote, vote vote, right? We need different people in there. It's a lot harder to change someone's mind if they already have set views that are antithetical to what you believe is just and right in the world, and it's a lot easier to make those changes when you have people that you have elected and voted in that agree with your vision of what's just. So definitely, vote vote vote. And there's a lot of emphasis on making sure that there's down ballot voting, right. So you want to vote from everything from your local school board, to your city commission, to your county commission, you know, state level representatives all the way up to President. I think it's also really important to--we vote for our supervisors of elections, for our state attorneys, you know, for our judges, right? Making sure that we're involved in every stage of that process, because those players have all the power. So that's what we need to do. Because an election just happened, right? What do we do now? Well, we show up right? So city commission's, they have commission meetings, county commission's they have commission meetings, school board meetings. Make yourself known, show up, let them know what you care about and hold them accountable. And when I say hold them accountable, I don't mean to presume that they don't care, and they're not doing the right thing, but I want to say is really, you're their constituent, and they work for you. And if you care about something, they should know what it is because if they don't know their constituents care, then they're not going to know that that's something they should be doing, right? Their job is to do the job of--their elected by their constituents. And if they're not hearing from their constituents, they might not know that that's something or their constituents care about. So the more they hear, the better. I would definitely, in this time of COVID, where people are doing Zoom meetings, it's actually a lot easier to meet with people. So you don't have to go to their office, I mean, people can squeeze you in a lot easier. So I would say literally, call right away, like call, your elected official, particularly call your state legislators too. Don't just--you want to do vocal, but you want to do your state, and  talk to them about criminal justice reform. What you care about, what you want to see, because they do listen to their constituents. If you're not their constituent, they don't really care because they're not beholden to you. But if you're their constituent, they want to make their people happy for the most part. So it's really important. I do want to mention that for those who haven't been doing this so far, if you go to myFloridahouse.gov, if you go to that website, you can plug in your address and it'll tell you who all of your reps are. And then you can have contact information. And so you can contact your state reps. And that would be really, definitely something that everybody should do.

 

Miranda  

Well, and can you also touch on the new protest stance? Yeah. Can you talk about that, too?

 

Kara Gross  

Yeah. So this is a perfect segue. So what everybody should do right away is call the governor and call your state legislator and tell him or tell her if they're a woman, that they need to oppose the governor's anti protest proposal. This is just unbelievable. Again, Florida. So the governor has drafted legislation that is an anti protest proposal that will basically infringe upon the first amendment rights, and chill speech, and silence dissent for anybody who's protesting. But it's not really meant for anybody who's protesting. It's meant for people who are protesting racial injustice. Because what happened this summer, and what's been happening much more over the past summer than before, is there have been protests all over in response to George Floyd's murder, and Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade, and these protests have been worrisome to the powers that be. And so in order to crack down on protesters, the governor has drafted language that would further criminalize people for exercising their first amendment rights. This legislation is troubling for so many reasons. First of all, it allows counter protesters who drive into protests and kill or injure them, to not be held liable.

 

Noelle  

We're rubbing our temples. But it's so scary. It's more than scary. it's terrifying.

 

Terrifying.

 

Kara Gross  

It's terrifying. So, you know, Heather Heyer, you know, she was killed by somebody who drove into her. In Florida, we have seen cars that have drove into people at protests already. This is emboldening white supremacists to do exactly that. It would create more violence, not less. And this is important because the governor couches this in a proposal to combat violence, and to combat looting, and to combat disorderly conduct. But it would actually increase violence against protesters. Another outrageous piece of this is that it expands the Stand Your Ground law, to include allowing someone to have the defense of stand your ground when somebody--so they could shoot someone for looting. So, you could be at a protest, a counter protester, vigilante with a gun, and you could see someone else that you think is looting, and you could shoot them. And under this bill, you would not be liable for that. So you can kill someone for property crime, and not be held liable.

 

Miranda  

Not your property? And I mean, not that you should anyways, but it's also not your property. And you could also just THINK that someone's looting.

 

Kara Gross  

Exactly. And it includes not just looting, but criminal mischief of a business, so that could be someone breaking a window, it could be somebody urinating on a building, it could be somebody blocking an entrance to a business. Who knows what it could mean, right? Spray painting Black Lives Matter on a business, all of that would be okay to kill someone under this expansion of standard ground. In addition to those two things, it does many other terrible things. It prevents local governments from reallocating their resources from police, from law enforcement to other priorities. It makes it so if you attend a protest of six or more people that turns violent, you could be arrested and charged with a third degree felony for up to 5 years in prison for being in attendance of something that went violent. You could have a felony for throwing an object at a protest, so basically the penalties are so severe that it would make you not want to attend a protest. And that's the whole point, right? They want to chill speech, they want to silence dissent, they don't want to hear from the people. And so they are--the governor has drafted legislation to make it so if you even think of coming out, you're gonna think twice. And then for those who do come out, the consequences are severe criminal penalties. It creates new mandatory minimums. So the rest of the country is trying to do away with mandatory minimums, everybody's realizing that they don't make any sense. This legislation would increase medical minimums, it makes it so if you're a state employee, and you are arrested and convicted of being at a protest that turns violent, that you could lose your job and no longer be employed by the state, and that you wouldn't be eligible for state benefits, unemployment benefits. So there's a whole bunch of stuff in this legislation. So I definitely encourage everybody right after they they stop listening to this podcast to call the governor and say that you are against this legislation, and do whatever you can because it's--session starts--they have their organization meeting on Tuesday of this week , and then committee meetings are going to be starting in December. Actually, they're gonna be starting in January and then session starts in March. But if he wanted to, he could rush this through because he has the numbers and he has legislators on the side.

 

Noelle  

Yeah, I'm just thinking about all the things we talked about that die and don't get put through and then something like this that's terrifying and so restrictive of our rights is probably--it's just so, so worrisome to me that something like that could pass.

 

Kara Gross  

Yeah. And that's why I think that sort of the public awareness of it, and outrage is the thing that could matter, right? So like, if Floridians are up in arms about it, if the national attention is on this terrible bill, those are things that would make him think twice. 

 

Noelle  

Kara, thank you so much for being here with us today. I feel like my head might fall off my neck from how much I've just been shaking it. Like, I can't believe these things. But you know, like you said, I think that if we take power within ourselves at the local level to exercise some of these actions that you're talking about to try to make change, and, you know, get a little bit more hopeful that maybe there's power in numbers of people listening to this podcast and other people out there that believe in human rights and dignity. So just thank you so much for being here today. But you know, before we go, we always like to ask what platforms can we find you on? Or any other organizations or individuals that are doing this work we should be following?

 

Kara Gross  

Yeah, yeah. Thank you. Definitely, the Campaign for Criminal Justice Reform. So folks should definitely follow that. Facebook, Twitter, the website is BetterjusticeFL.com. Sign up for newsletters, action alerts. But definitely, that would be a great place to get up to date criminal Justice reform work that's being worked on.  ACLU Florida, we have our own Facebook, Twitter, webpage, definitely go there, sign up for action alerts, sign up for emails, you can follow what we're doing. No Place for a Child. Also, we talked about that. They have their own Facebook, webpage, Twitter. You can follow the specific measures going on to try and keep children out of adult prisons. Also the Keep Kids Learning Campaign, I think I mentioned that, I didn't get a chance to talk about it, but on Facebook, follow them as well. They're doing great work with particularly trying to raise awareness of how--what's the word I'm looking for. Terrible? How awful, disastrous it's been having police officers in schools and how that has increased arrests on the school to prison pipeline, ever since that legislation was passed that made it so we have more police officers in school than we do school nurses. So yeah, Keep Kids Learning is good. And yeah, yeah.

 

Noelle  

Well and I'll just put a little plug in there...then nurses, than psychologists, than counselors, and all these mental health professionals that could be on campus.

 

Kara Gross  

Yeah, yeah. Right. There's more police officers than counselors, nurses, psychologists in school right now. Social workers. Yeah. Mm hmm. Yeah. 

 

Miranda  

So just to put it out there, I actually just pulled up Ron DeSantis', phone number. So if you guys want to contact him at 850.717.9337. So make sure to give him a call.

 

Kara Gross  

Yes. Yes. Yes. Let him know that you do not want that.

 

Miranda  

So I think I said already, we link to everything in our show notes. So definitely check out our website for everything that we've talked about today. And thank you so much for being here today Kara. Really super insightful. You know, I definitely have some things that I want to do after talking to you. With that said, be sure to join us next week with Fernando Bermudez who lost over 18 years in New York State maximum security prisons following his wrongful conviction of murder in 1991. Mr Bermudez was proven innocent in late 2009 and shares a story of hope and rebirth in his 10th year of freedom. 

 

[Outro music plays]

 

Miranda: The Unpacked Project is produced by Vicky Lee. Branding and Marketing by Raquel Avalos.

Noelle: Show us some love and be sure to like, subscribe and review our podcast. And to stay connected and up-to-date, follow us on Instagram at the_unpacked project.

Miranda: Shout out to all of our listeners who unpacked with us today, we’ll see you next week.

Noelle: Peace!

Miranda: Ayye byyeee