Key senate panel backs sentencing changes
By Ana Ceballos
News Service of Florida
The Florida Senate is on the brink of approving a bipartisan bill that would loosen sentencing laws for certain drug-trafficking offenses, a move that has the potential of significantly reducing the state’s prison population.
The measure, which would allow for shorter sentences and more judicial discretion, was unanimously approved last Thursday by the Senate Appropriations Committee, the last hurdle before heading to the floor for a full Senate vote.
Senate budget chief Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said the committee’s overwhelming support of the bill “sends a strong message” about the Senate’s support for criminal justice reform during the 2020 legislative session, which began last Tuesday.
But it’s unclear whether the Florida House will embrace the proposed sentencing changes.
Under the new guidelines laid out in Bradley’s measure, judges would be allowed to consider shorter sentences and lower fines for drug-trafficking defendants who meet certain criteria.
The bill (SB 346) would also set a maximum incarceration time of 12 months for people who buy or possess less than two grams of a controlled substance, other than fentanyl.
“Sentencing reform for low-risk offenders is the right thing to do, from both human costs and fiscal costs,” Bradley, a former prosecutor, told the committee.
The sentencing changes in the bill have the potential of affecting up to 4,800 individuals in the prison system, Bradley estimated.
“That’s potential savings to our system of $50 million or so, and reinvesting that in specialty courts and treatment I think would be a more effective approach to this complex issue,” Bradley argued.
Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Mark Inch has asked state lawmakers to inject more money into the prison system to address ongoing problems, such as high employee turnover and aging infrastructure.
But Bradley emphasized that his push for the bill is “not a money issue.”
“This is the right thing to do when it comes to having a criminal justice system that has sentences that are proportionate to the crime that was committed,” he said.
To benefit from judicial discretion under Bradley’s measure, defendants would not be able to have prior felony convictions in which force or violence was used and would need to “truthfully” provide law enforcement with all of the information and evidence associated with their cases. Defendants also would not be allowed to be in possession of a firearm at the time of their crimes.
Phil Archer, the state attorney for the 18th Judicial Circuit and president of the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association, told senators that prosecutors already consider some of the criteria when negotiating plea deals with drug-trafficking offenders. The plea deals often lead to shorter sentences, he said.
Archer, whose judicial circuit encompasses Seminole and Brevard counties, argued it is more “efficient” to leave discretion about mandatory minimums to state attorneys — not judges.
“There are 600 circuit court judges … so you can have a wide range of policies and every defense attorney knows which judges are lenient judges and which ones are strict judges,” he said. “At least when you limit it to the 20 state attorneys, you have one policy in each circuit and you can vote them in or out of office based on that.”
Archer also said it would be a “stretch” to allow judicial discretion over cases that carry a mandatory-minimum sentence of 15 years in prison, which include cases in which people trafficked 400 grams or more of cocaine or 25 grams or more of oxycodone.
Gary Hester, a lobbyist with the Florida Police Chiefs Association, called it “unfortunate” to characterize many of the drug traffickers who would qualify under the bill as “low-level, non-violent criminals.”
“I believe this is an inaccurate assertion,” Hester said. “We can’t ignore the fact that drug traffickers are killing people in our state with the poison that they are pumping.”
But Sen. Oscar Braynon, a Miami Gardens Democrat, pointed to the benefits of the measure.
“One of the goals of doing something like this is making sure that a first-time offender doesn’t become a repeat offender. But if you put them in jail for 25 years for a mistake, what else are they going to be after a quarter of their life has been spent in jail?” Braynon said.
Bradley echoed that sentiment, saying he would not have filed the proposal if he “thought for a second the bill would increase pain.”
While the criminal justice proposal has swiftly moved through all of its committee in the Senate with unanimous support, the legislation lacks a House companion.