Sentencing reform gets early bipartisan boost in Florida Senate

A popular bill would allow judges to dole out punishments less than the mandatory minimum sentences spelled out in state law for many drug crimes if the defendant meets certain criteria.
Florida Senator Rob Bradley, R- Fleming Island, watches the action on the first day of the session, 1/14/2020.
Florida Senator Rob Bradley, R- Fleming Island, watches the action on the first day of the session, 1/14/2020. [ SCOTT KEELER | TAMPA BAY TIMES ]
Published Jan. 16, 2020|Updated Jan. 17, 2020

TALLAHASSEE — Signaling that the state’s two-decade-long push to impose mandatory minimum sentences on drug crimes is broken, a Senate committee Thursday gave bipartisan approval to a measure that would loosen sentencing laws for specific drug offenses and give judges more discretion.

Senate Bill 346 is a top priority for powerful budget chairman Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island. It goes next to a full floor vote, a fast-track message to House opponents that Senate leaders want action on the long-delayed proposal this year.

“It sends a strong message that we would like to see more criminal justice reform this year,’’ Bradley told reporters after the Senate Appropriations Committee voted unanimously to advance a bill he has spent much of his Senate career shaping.

Florida law currently sets sentences for many drug crimes as “mandatory minimums,” which are determined based on the weight of drugs that were possessed or sold in the crime.

The bill would allow judges to dole out punishments less than the mandatory minimum sentences spelled out in state law for many drug crimes if the defendant meets certain criteria — such as having no prior violent felony convictions, not having any connections to organized crime, and not having caused serious injury or death.

The bill also would prohibit anyone caught with two grams or less of a drug — as long as it wasn’t fentanyl, a powerful opioid — from going to state prison. Rather, those low-level offenders would stay in county jails on sentences of one year or less.

According to Bradley, the bill could result in the eventual reduction of up to 4,800 prison beds, leading to potentially $50 million in savings for the state and a slight reduction in the state’s prison population. However, he emphasized, that was not what was motivating him to pursue the reform.

“I’m not advocating this bill because I think it’s a way to save money,’’ he told the committee. “I’m advocating for this bill because I think it’s the right thing to do.”

Bradley cited a 2019 report done by state auditors that found that low-level offenders sent to prison reoffended at higher rates compared to those who only received community supervision.

The conclusion, he said, is that diverting low-level drug offenders “won’t negatively impact public safety and it may make us safer.”

Others pay a price, too

Bradley also spoke of the human toll the state’s sentencing laws have had on individuals and families.

“When we’re dealing with people who are touched by addiction, I think that if we empower judges ... I actually genuinely believe we’re going to save lives and make our society a little safer and a little more just,” he said. “For example, if the addict shows potential, they could craft a sentence that is more productive than 7 years in prison and we could perhaps reclaim a life.”

Related: Hundreds of Florida inmates are serving drug sentences no longer in state law

But the opposition that has halted progress on sentencing reform in the past reemerged Thursday, with both the association of state attorneys and Florida sheriffs saying that easing penalties for drug crimes could jeopardize the state’s low crime rates.

Phil Archer, president of the prosecutors’ association and state attorney for Brevard and Seminole counties, said the provision in the bill that allows judges to grant lower sentences for those facing 15-year mandatory minimums was going too far. To receive a 15-year sentence for oxycodone, for example, a person would have to possess or sell between 25 grams and 100 grams of pills.

“That is a significant amount of drugs that is dumping into my neighborhood and your neighborhood,” he said.

Manatee County Sheriff Rick Wells testified that Florida’s prisons are not filled with first-time offenders or addicts, and that mandatory minimums ensure drug traffickers get consistent sentences.

“You almost have to beg your way into prison,” he said.

Archer conceded that state attorneys have enormous discretion already when it comes to crimes, telling the Senate that only 2% of all drug-related convictions go to trial. The rest accept plea deals, which are agreements between the prosecution and the defense.

Those comments prompted push back from Greg Newburn, director of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a non-profit which has been working for years to get Florida to adopt the same sentencing reforms as states such as Texas and Georgia.

“If crime is down, and drug abuse is down, you credit the mandatory minimums, and if crime is up or drug abuse is up, you say we need more mandatory minimums,’’ he said. “Under that theory, there isn’t a single set of circumstances that can exist in which mandatory minimums are not necessary. It’s a magic trick.”

He blamed prosecutors for opposing the measure without analyzing the data related to the laws, the impact on crime and the cost-benefit analysis because they want to retain ultimate power over sentencing.

“Every single day, every single state attorney in this state waives a 15-year or 25-year mandatory minimum,’’ he said, often choosing to give lower prison sentences and drug treatment. “They are completely OK with this class of offender serving less time than the sentence allows — as long as they are the gatekeeper to allow it.”

Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, who has also spent his Senate career working toward sentencing reform, agreed and noted that the 2% of drug offenders whose cases go to trial are often those who “believe they at least have” a case they might win.

“What this is really about is the trial penalty — the state’s attorneys need to be able to say, ‘If you don’t do this you’re going to get 25 years in prison,’ in order to secure the plea deal,’’ Brandes said. “This moves us in the right direction.”

In addition to the sentencing piece, the bill also updates the state law relating to police interrogations, requiring all interviews to be recorded, something Bradley says “codifies best practices.”

The measure also gives people who were wrongly imprisoned more time to file claims for compensation from the state.

Democrats on the committee commended Bradley for advancing the bill as a long-overdue attempt to address the causes of the state’s drug-crime problem.

Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, noted that while 13% of the state’s population is African American, 49% of the state’s prison population is African American, and Florida’s per capita incarceration rate is 20% above the national average.

“One of the goals of doing something like this is to make sure that a first-time offender doesn’t become a repeat offender,’’ he said. “Well, 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 they spent in jail? And that person, by the numbers, more likely will come from a community like mine.”

A former prosecutor

Bradley entered the Legislature eight years ago with a focus on criminal justice issues and this is his final year in the state Senate. His perspective began from the vantage point as a former assistant state attorney, where he spent two years early in his legal career.

But, as with many senators who have been asked to respond to the constant drip of news stories about the state’s troubled prison system, abuse in the state juvenile detention system, and often uneven and inefficient system of dealing with juvenile crime, he has advocated reforms.

But each year many of his conservative colleagues in the Senate, and the leadership of the state House — which controls that chamber’s agenda — have balked at embracing the proposals.

“We’ve done some modest things, but significant reform has proven to be a bit elusive,’’ Bradley said Thursday, adding that the reform was still incremental: “We’re not going to completely change the face of criminal justice whether this passes or not.”

A bill with similar sentencing language has yet to move in the House. While Bradley, Brandes and Senate President Bill Galvano have indicated sentencing reform is a priority, Bradley said he first needs to get the Senate to agree “before I ever worry about what happens in the House.”

“I’m looking to thread a needle with a lot of folks that have a lot of different opinions in the Senate,’’ he said. “I have 39 Somali warlords that I have to negotiate with in the Senate to get these things passed.”