A small group of military veterans and re-enactors contended Monday some lawmakers appear “anti-veteran” for not moving forward with a measure that would make it a third-degree felony for defacing a statue or memorial of a “hero.”
But the proposal, which has cleared House committees, has brushed against a priority of Senate President Joe Negron aimed at keeping young offenders out of the criminal-justice system.
Addressing reporters at the Florida Press Center, members of the group called “Save the Honor” implored Senate leaders to start advancing a bill (SB 418) titled the “Soldiers’ and Heroes’ Monuments and Memorials Protection Act.”
Seber Newsome, a veteran from Yulee, said the state has stiffer punishments for vandalizing a public phone booth than charges that can be imposed for defacing a memorial for a veteran or first responder.
“Florida has the third largest veterans’ population in the nation, but memorials for her veterans are currently under attack,” Newsome said. “They’re being used as either free billboards for propaganda, or canvases for public art.”
The bill filed by Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, has failed to get heard by the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, its first scheduled stop, as the regular 60-day legislative session enters its final three weeks.
Committee Chairman Randolph Bracy, D-Orlando, rejected the contention he’s anti-veteran. Instead, he said he has an aversion to creating new penalties, particularly a proposal that would make vandalism a felony.
“It wasn’t necessarily directed towards this particular bill,” Bracy said. “That’s kind of been an overall policy position of mine.”
The measure would impose a felony charge for defacing or damaging a memorial, grave or tomb that represents a Continental soldier or member of the U.S. military, a NASA astronaut or a first responder.
Bracy said he didn’t get any direction from Negron, R-Stuart, on the heroes’ proposal.
But the proposal comes as Senate leaders back a measure (SB 196) that seeks to expand the use of civil citations and similar diversion programs for young offenders as an alternative to arresting them. The effort seeks to help minors avoid being marked for the rest of their lives for what Negron has called youthful “mischief.”
James Shillinglaw, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans from Jacksonville, said community service punishments, such as cleaning memorials, mowing graveyards or meeting with veterans may help to educate juvenile offenders.
“I think that would be more of a message than slapping them on the hand and putting them in jail where they come out more criminals,” Shillinglaw said. “We need to educate them so they don’t do it again. … But if you’re over 18, they would throw the book at you.”
A similar “heroes” measure in the House (HB 529), filed by Rep. Brad Drake, R-Eucheeanna, awaits a hearing on the House floor after marching through three committee stops without drawing a single vote in opposition.
Steube’s proposal goes a little further than the House proposal, as it would apply to defacing or damaging a range of items including paintings, stained glass, plaques, nameplates, historical markers, historical flag displays, fountains and religious symbols.
Get The Post’s complete coverage of the Florida Legislature’s 2017 session, PalmBeachPost.com/legislature