Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Thursday evening that he would move to pardon anyone in the state who flouted mask or social distancing mandates—something that should be welcome news to anyone who supports criminal justice reform.
It likely won’t be, at least not among his more energetic detractors. Known by some as “DeathSantis,” the governor carved out a reputation during the COVID-19 pandemic for being skeptical of virus-related restrictions. Though the per capita death rate in Florida is not much higher than California’s—where even outdoor dining was shuttered for a chunk of the fall and winter—his approach earned him much scorn across the country, with some media outlets contorting themselves in knots to castigate his approach.
But whether or not you’re behind the basic tenets of criminal justice reform shouldn’t turn on the political persuasion of who is doing the reforming. Catalyzing DeSantis’ announcement were the arrests of Mike and Jillian Carnevale, gym owners in Broward County, Florida, who faced up to 120 days in jail for permitting people to exercise sans masks.
“It’s a total overreach,” said DeSantis on Laura Ingraham’s Fox News program, adding that he will issue pardons when he meets with the state’s clemency board in the coming months. “These things with health should be advisory, they should not be punitive.”
That the government would lock anyone in a cage for allowing other people to make their own choices on face coverings is patently bonkers. Yet the Carnevales are far from the only ones who have fallen victim to an excessively punitive approach. Perhaps DeSantis could apply his newfound attitude on overcriminalization to the many other offenses that have people languishing away behind bars for stupid reasons.
Let’s start with the obvious: weed. In Florida, those arrested for marijuana possession under 20 grams face a $1,000 fine and up to a year in prison. Those caught with more than 25 grams face up to 15 years behind bars, with a mandatory sentence of three years.
It’s likely that DeSantis, a law-and-order Republican, views the Carnevales’ crimes as victimless. Are they? Several COVID-19 outbreaks have been traced back to gyms where people forewent masks, including at a gym in Hawaii where 21 people contracted the virus over a three-day period and a gym in Chicago where 55 people contracted it during a week in August. Those gyms implemented social distancing measures, but allowed exercisers to ditch the face coverings.
Such gymgoers may have later given the virus to others. Smoking marijuana, however, is actually victimless—whether or not you agree with the choice morally. Florida has recorded about 36,000 deaths from COVID-19 over the last year; there have been zero recorded deaths from weed in U.S. history.
DeSantis isn’t convinced. “Not while I’m governor,” he said in 2019 when asked how he felt about legalizing recreational cannabis. “I mean look, when that is introduced with teenagers and young people I think it has a really detrimental effect to their well-being and their maturity.” That isn’t supported by the evidence. A study released by JAMA Pediatrics found that legalizing the drug may actually cause teens to lose interest in weed, something supported by preliminary data in Washington, Colorado, and Oregon.
But even if DeSantis’ claim were true—that recreational cannabis would have some sort of dire influence on teenage maturity—there’s a pretty hefty tradeoff involved: people wasting away in prisons and/or buckling under crippling fines for making a personal choice he does not agree with. Arguably more consequential is opting not to wear a mask when exercising, which, in theory, may have spurred someone’s untimely death.
If you were wondering where DeSantis stood in the criminal justice discussions happening nationwide since last May, he recently set the tone by signing some new legislation: an “anti-riot” bill. On the surface, it’s not all bad—very few serious people are in favor of burning and looting cities. But there are a few troubling components, like the part that prevents anyone arrested of “unlawful assembly” from being released before they go to court. Unlawful assembly is notoriously vague, and essentially allows police officers to arrest anyone protesting, whether or not they actually present a threat. This from the governor who claims to support free speech.
“I think they’ve been treated poorly,” DeSantis said last night, “but fortunately they’ve got a governor that cares.” There are many other people in Florida who have been treated poorly. Does he care about them?