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Prosecutors campaign against sentence rules

Florida's prosecuting attorneys are mounting a campaign to eliminate sentencing guidelines that restrict the time criminals can be sentenced to prison.

For years, some prosecutors and judges have complained that the guidelines, imposed since 1983, leave too little discretion with judges who have heard the gory details of each case before them.

Sentencing guidelines were adopted to eliminate disparity in sentencing for similar crimes. In the beginning, the guidelines were supposed to be recommendations for the trial judge, but changes in the law and a number of court decisions have made them mandatory and extremely complex.

Under the guidelines, a defendant receives a score based on the crime committed, prior criminal convictions, parole violations and other factors.

Revisions adopted by legislators earlier this year have made it harder than ever to send guilty defendants to prison, say prosecutors. They are planning to take the issue before lawmakers in the spring.

The new guidelines, imposed under the "Safe Streets Act," and new prisons built during the past few years will result in prisoners serving more of their sentences. But the guidelines drastically reduce the number of people who can be sent to prison and the length of sentence a judge can impose.

Prosecutors say the state sent 22 percent of its convicted felons to prison last year, but will only send about 19 percent to prison this year if sentencing estimates are correct.

"Forty to 45 percent is the national average," says Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe. "There has been a steady decline over the last four or five years. There has to be a point at which public confidence in the system wanes."

A defendant who would have gotten 40 years in prison a decade ago, would have gotten 20 years a year or so ago. And now that defendant would be limited to a five-year sentence, said State Attorney Earl Moreland of Sarasota.

Under the new guidelines, which took effect July 1, a defendant must commit six business burglaries or six auto thefts before a judge can even consider sending the person to a state prison. Under the old guidelines, prison was a possibility for the second burglary or the fourth auto theft.

"The state is using sentencing guidelines as a prison management tool," Moreland said. "We still have to let a prisoner out every time we send one in. Someone needs to be sitting down with each inmate at the end of the line and checking to see what kind of home he's going back to and what kind of rehabilitation he's received before we decide who gets out early."

McCabe said Thursday that the state's prosecuting attorneys have determined that the state would be better off without the guidelines.

"Guidelines can be valuable because they provide statewide equity and truth in sentencing, but the problem arises when you use them to control the prison population," says McCabe. "What you are saying is that it's not the crime that counts, it's whether we have a prison bed."

State Attorney Willie Meggs of Tallahassee recently compared the prison sentence a defendant got for a crime committed under the old guidelines with what he would get under the new guidelines. He's not happy with the results.

A 21-year-old convicted rapist with prior rape convictions shot his victim in her apartment before raping her four times and was sentenced to life in prison under the old guidelines. If he had committed the crime after July 1, he would have faced a sentence of 34 years or less.

The problem Meggs encountered is that the guidelines provide a bargain to a defendant who commits multiple rapes.

"The more you get, the better deal you get," Meggs said. "You ought to get double the time because you are bad and violent. It's incredibly stupid. The new guidelines have effectively eliminated a life sentence."

Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Stephen H. Grimes said the guidelines got more complicated after legislators began establishing minimum mandatory sentences for some crimes and probably would not have grown so controversial if overcrowded prisons had not forced the state to let inmates out early.