It’s called ‘the Department of Corrections’ not ‘the Department of Punishment’

When it comes to reforming Florida’s criminal justice system, “everyone’s generally for it – the question is what that means,” Tallahassee lobbyist and clemency attorney Reggie Garcia says.

Garcia is an expert on Florida’s clemency system. He wrote  “How to Leave Prison Early: Florida Clemency, Parole, and Work Release”  and a follow-up volume, “Second Chances.” The first book includes a discussion of a client Garcia represented for free who has served 33 years for a Tampa murder the evidence long has suggested he didn’t commit.

Attorney Reggie Garcia

Given recent turnover in the governor’s office and in the elected Florida Cabinet (Gov. Ron DeSantis, Attorney General Moody, and Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services Nikki Fried took office in January; Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis is a holdover,) Garcia says he expects new revisions to the state’s executive clemency process.

Although voters approved a measure (Amendment 4) to automatically restore voting rights to felons who have served their sentences, a new law that went into effect this summer is adding more hurdles.

And anyone convicted of murder or a sexual offense isn’t eligible for automatic rights restoration, so their only choice is to go before the Executive Board of Clemency – that’s DeSantis, plus the three elected Cabinet members. It’s a tricky and arbitrary process that can take years, leaving offenders and their families confused and frustrated.

“The book is focused on current and future state inmates and four very specific release strategies – clemency, parole, work release, and conditional medical release,” Garcia said. “Four different things, different eligibilities, different laws, rules. It’s like a how-to book written for laypeople. The audience for my second book is all of Florida’s 1.4 million convicted felons.”

The Phoenix sat down for a chat with Garcia about his books and the climate for criminal justice reform. His remarks have been edited for length and clarity.

Florida Phoenix: What are the prospects for criminal justice reform in the next few years?

Reggie Garcia: What got the most attention [during last year’s legislative session] is that the threshold for felony grand theft was bumped from $300 to $750 – referring to people who steal that much or write a bad check for that amount. That’s heading in the right direction.

When you’ve got a lot of the conservative groups saying government doesn’t do this well – if we give corrections $2.5 billion and one-third to half of the released inmates are coming back [to prison] in pretty short order – if we were a hedge fund, we probably wouldn’t invest in that model. Everybody’s looking at how to make the system work better and more efficiently, and with better results.

It’s called the Department of Corrections – let’s invest and correct the bad behavior while we have the inmates captive. It’s not called the Department of Punishment; it’s not called the Department of Retribution.

FP: One thing you point out in the book is that readers should consider the legal and political validity of their cases. Why is that important?

RG: I use “political” as a good word, not a bad word. At least for clemency, you have to convince the governor and two Cabinet members to shorten someone’s sentence. Are they going to do that for someone who’s a sexual predator or sexual offender whose victims were minors? If somebody kills a police officer? Some of the crimes themselves are so heinous that I just tell them, ‘Don’t waste your time, don’t waste your money.’

These elected officials are very risk-averse. Gov. [Rick] Scott did five prison commutations in eight years. There were approximately 150-ish commutations since 1980 by seven or eight governors. The good news is there are that many. The bad news is there are only that many. The nightmare is that you release someone who commits a new crime and it blows up.

FP: Another thing you write is, “Be patient, because seeking justice, grace, and mercy is not a fast or easy process.” Could you elaborate?

RG: Executive clemency, there are 24,000 pending cases. They do about 350 to 400 a year at quarterly meetings. Keeping in mind, those are mostly pardons, restoration of civil rights, and firearm [rights] restoration petitions, not predominantly prison commutations. But, just as a guide, you have a lot of state inmates who fill out the one-page application and – unless the governor and one member of the Cabinet agree to even investigate the case – you never even get a hearing.

And most of those requests for review are denied after three, five, six, seven years just on the papers. Clemency and prison commutations, by definition, take a long time, just because there’s a backlog. I try to manage people’s expectations.

FP: You go into detail about how the various clemency processes work. Is there an overriding principle?

RG: It was very clear from taking calls from family members, and occasionally taking calls and having visits with inmates, that very few people knew anything about any of these options. It was a very elementary effort to inform them of the current release options. The terminology alone is a little bit intimidating.

Don’t get me wrong – there’s a business, commercial, marketing aspect to this as well, because I’m a one-person law firm and intake all these cases myself. The idea was that it would inform that population, and maybe their families, and to an extent criminal-defense lawyers who may have handled their cases or appeals, that these at least are the current four options.

FP: Your book was among 20,000 books the Florida Department of Corrections banned in prisons. What’s it like to be banned?

RG: The short answer about why it got banned was because I included one of my pro bono cases in here. I’ve been representing a deaf inmate named Felix Garcia. In [the Deptartment of Corrections’] defense, there is an administrative law rule – which I think they’re not interpreting correctly – that says if you identify an inmate they can ban it under the theory that it might be a safety issue. Somebody wrote me and said, “If you take that chapter out maybe we’ll let it in.” I said OK, but in effect they didn’t want to commit to that, either.

FP: You can’t get it to the inmates under the ban, but you can get it to their families?

RG: And I tell them to double check with the Florida Department of Corrections, but except for Chapter 10 – the Felix chapter – you can make copies of this stuff and mail it in.

Garcia will appear at 6 p.m. Thursday at Tallahassee’s Midtown Reader bookshop. Proceeds from sales will go to the Innocence Project of Florida.

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