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Florida reconsiders minimum mandatory sentences for nonviolent crimes

TALLAHASSEE — Florida's decades-old, tough-on-crime laws may have helped cut the crime rate, but legislators now say such policies put too great a burden on taxpayers and are too harsh, especially for drug addicts.

The backswing of the public safety pendulum in the Capitol mirrors a conservative national reassessment of sentencing policies known as Right on Crime, led by former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist.

In Florida, Republican legislators want to eliminate minimum mandatory sentences for nonviolent offenders — mostly for drug abuse. Among their arguments is the epidemic of prescription drug abuse at storefront clinics known as "pill mills."

"We have an awful lot of people out there who are simply drug addicts who need assistance. We need to figure that out," said Republican Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff of Fort Lauderdale. "I'm just trying to make sure that drug addicts get help, and drug traffickers go to jail."

But Gov. Rick Scott opposes any changes in sentencing laws that would keep some people out of prison.

"I don't want to change any of the sentencing guidelines," Scott said. "I think where we are is fine, and it's what's fair if someone commits a crime."

Republican House leaders also appear reluctant to tinker with sentencing laws, according to Rep. Ari Porth, a Coral Springs Democrat, state prosecutor and sponsor of the House version, HB 917. Porth is pushing a scaled-down bill expanding re-entry programs for inmates upon release.

Year after year, Bogdanoff has sponsored legislation that would give judges greater leeway in sentencing drug users and after years of strong resistance, her proposal has momentum this session — a sure sign of changing attitudes, she said.

"A lot of people feel it's time to readdress our drug trafficking laws and to remove the minimum mandatories," Bogdanoff said. "We pay our judges a lot of money. They should be doing their job and they should be the ones determining the sentence."

The veteran Broward County lawmaker said possession of seven tablets of the painkiller Vicodin can land somebody a three-year prison sentence.

A unanimous Senate Criminal Justice Committee approved Bogdanoff's bill, SB 1334, over the opposition of Florida sheriffs and prosecutors.

Seminole County Sheriff Don Eslinger said sheriffs oppose any changes "that would diminish the consequences of drug trafficking," and added: "The threat of minimum mandatory sentences does in fact deter drug dealers and users."

But changes to sentencing laws and increased support for inmate re-entry programs have support from conservative business groups, such as Associated Industries of Florida and Florida TaxWatch.

"We are all looking at ways that we can save money while enhancing public safety," said Robert Weissert of Florida TaxWatch, "while adding justice back to the idea of a criminal justice system."

Norquist, leader of Americans for Tax Reform, visited Tallahassee and testified in support of laws aimed at keeping more nonviolent offenders out of prison and reducing the recidivism rate. He said the cost of incarcerating inmates in America is out of control.

"The only people who can fix this are conservatives, because we have some credibility on the crime issue," Norquist said. "It is getting so expensive that it does matter."

He said he hoped Scott would seriously consider changes to sentencing laws.

"The sense I had was that the governor wasn't hostile, he just had his own agenda," Norquist said. "This is going to be driven by the Legislature, or not happen."

Scott's newly hired corrections secretary, Edwin Buss, also supports less use of minimum mandatory sentences, as he said in recent testimony before a House committee. But Scott himself disagrees, even as he marvels in public speeches about the fact that Florida has 146 state prisons (and where one of every 10 inmates is serving time for a drug offense).

"I'm not interested in reducing sentencing. I think that the sentencing guidelines are correct," Scott said.

Referring to the recent elimination of a streamlined clemency process for released felons, Scott said: "Those things are really hard because on one side you want to be very forgiving. At the same time, you've got to take care of society."

Told of Scott's opposition, Bogdanoff noted that her proposal had broad bipartisan support and said she hoped the influence of others would change Scott's mind.

"If you have a bill that goes through the Legislature and has overwhelming support, he (Scott) has to make a decision as to who's right, one man or 160 people?" Bogdanoff said. "There's still time for him to absorb the issue and let it work through the process."

Times/Herald staff writer Janet Zink contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Florida reconsiders minimum mandatory sentences for nonviolent crimes 04/06/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 6, 2011 10:10pm]
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