A group of military veterans are calling on Florida Senate leaders to hear a bill that would increase penalties for defacing any Veterans memorial across the state.
The bill makes it at least a third degree felony to deface memorials honoring the memory of Veterans, First Responders, and astronauts. Today, the minimum penalty is a second degree misdemeanor charge. Rep. Brad Drake (R-Eucheeanna) is sponsoring that effort in the House.
“The current law says that those that destroy a telephone booth should face harsher penalties than those that destroy a memorial or veteran’s grave,” said Drake, during the bill's last committee hearing. “So, if there doesn’t lie the need, I don’t know what does.”
And, after unanimously passing three House committees, it’s now headed to the floor. But, it has not been heard in any committees in the Senate. Its first stop would be the Senate Criminal Justice Committee chaired by Sen. Randolph Bracy (D-Ocoee).
Sen. Greg Steube (R-Sarasota)—the bill’s Senate sponsor—says he’s tried to get the bill on Bracy’s agenda to no avail.
Bracy did not return any calls for comment as to why he has not put the bill on the agenda, but there’s speculation it’s because of his and the Senate President’s stance on juvenile justice issues and wanting to decriminalize adolescence.
“One thing I do believe is that we over sentence people, juveniles, but also adults for low-level nonviolent crimes,” said Bracy, after he was first named chair of his committee. “So, that’s something I want to address.”
While that’s a viewpoint shared by James Shillinglaw, the disabled veteran from Jacksonville points out the bill does include memorial vandals doing between 40 and 100 hours of community service.
“Like, if you get into a fight in school now, you get assault charges,” he said. “So, even before you leave high school, you can get an arrest record. So, we don’t support children under 18 getting felonies, but this would be a good opportunity to institute community service, make them clean up the graves they desecrated, make them mow the yard, and go to VFWs and meet veterans of the graves they spray painted. 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.”
For Pensacola resident Cal Daniel, a young war reenactor—stiffer penalties are warranted. He says he’s visited several areas where tombstones and memorials were vandalized.
“And, as a historian, I quickly realized that underage or not, these were premeditated,” said Daniel. “They came out there knowing which ones they wanted to vandalize and to me, I think that should be more severe. But, I don’t [necessarily] agree a felony. But, I mean these are people’s loved ones. These are people’s sons and fathers and a lot of these men from Civil War to World War II, they were drafted and they didn’t have a choice. But, they still fought and gave us the freedoms that we have today.”
So, Seber Newsome III, a Yulee resident and veteran, says this shouldn’t be a hard bill for lawmakers.
“Florida has the third largest veteran’s population in the nation, but memorials for veterans are currently under attack,” he said. “They’re being used as either free billboards for propaganda, or canvases for public art.”
In fact, in a budget committee last week, Newsome called out Bracy—who was on that panel—for not hearing the bill.
“Senator Bracy, are you anti-veteran, or anti-police,” asked Newsome, at the time. “Because you will not hear Senate Bill 418, the Soldiers and Heroes Monuments and memorials Protection Act.”
This week, Newsome, Daniel, and Shillinglaw joined several others to walk to the state Capitol Monday with signs depicting those views. While they’re all affiliated with groups like “Save Southern Heritage Florida” and “Sons of Confederate Veterans,” Shillinglaw says this bill is for everyone.
“If that was a monument for your ancestors, how would you feel if somebody spray painted something on it,” he asked. “How would you feel if that was a marker to your grandfather, who served in World War II and somebody didn’t like what we did somewhere and spray painted something on it? We’re monumenting Floridians, black, white, Asian, whatever diversity background is out there, this Monument Act protects all of them for everybody: Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, Independent, Green Party, whatever party you want to be in.”
If Bracy doesn’t bring the bill up, they’re calling on Senate President Joe Negron to bring it straight to the floor. But according to Negron’s office, the decision lies with Bracy.
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