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  1. Florida Politics

In major Tallahassee reversal, mandatory sentences called a waste of taxpayer money

The “prison diversion bill” is sponsored by Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg.
The “prison diversion bill” is sponsored by Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg.
Published Feb. 24, 2017

TALLAHASSEE — Cynthia Powell is serving a 25-year sentence for selling 35 pills for $300 in 2002. Her incarceration at Homestead Correctional Institution costs taxpayers an average of $18,064 per year — or $451,600 by the time she is released in 2023.

The Florida Senate Criminal Justice Committee concluded this week that that's money poorly spent. It voted unanimously for SB 290, which would end minimum mandatory sentences for nonviolent offenses like Powell's. It's a massive shift in the tough-on-crime bills of the past two decades that filled prisons and created what both liberals and conservatives now believe has been a subclass of lifers in jail and a waste of tax money.

The "prison diversion bill" will save the state $131 million in avoided costs and put 1,001 fewer people in jail, said Sen. Daryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, the bill's sponsor.

The measure allows judges to depart from the 118 minimum mandatory sentences in Florida law but excludes drug traffickers. It restores the Florida Sentencing Commission, which existed from 1982 to 1997, but limits its scope to determining the severity ranking that adds points to an offender's record based on certain offenses. Anyone who commits a violent offense is not eligible for the court's leniency.

Reforming Florida's legacy of harsh sentencing is one of several ideas being pushed by a coalition of liberal and conservative advocates that were passed unanimously by the Senate committee on Tuesday.

"We are in an interesting juncture in our society and the Legislature, where Democrats and Republicans in both chambers agree that it's really time to look at our criminal justice system and start to make some reforms," said Sen. Randolph Bracy, D-Orlando, chairman of the committee.

The committee unanimously passed three other bills:

• SB 312, which would require police to administer lineups blindly, requiring the officer conducting the lineup to be unaware if the suspect is present, and instructing witnesses that the perpetrator may or may not be present.

• SB 296, which would require police to record in full the interrogations of felony suspects in an attempt to end false and coerced confessions.

• SB 494, which would change the state law that compensates victims of wrongful incarceration to allow those who have previously been convicted of nonviolent felonies to be eligible for state compensation. Under the bill, the state will withhold compensation only if the wrongfully convicted person had committed a violent felony in the past.

Thirty-two states have statutes that provide compensation for the wrongly convicted, but only Florida has a "clean hands" requirement that denies compensation if they have a past conviction.

"It's time we address this inequitable position," said Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island. He added that he intends to amend the bill to allow compensation to all victims, including those who have a violent felony in their past and have served their sentences.

"The one thing the government does that is most intrusive on an individual is incarcerating them — taking away their liberty," Bradley said, and for the state to punish them again is the equivalent of the state's not having "clean hands," he said.

The House has filed a similar suite of bills, and Bracy said he is optimistic that there is sentiment to make progress on criminal justice reform this year.

Greg Newburn, director of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a conservative group that supports ending mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent crimes, said "dozens of states have already made the decision to move in this area." They include Georgia, Oklahoma and North Carolina.

"The results are uniform," he said. "We get lower crime. We get smaller prison populations. They've closed prisons and saved tens of millions of dollars."

If Powell, the Homestead inmate, had sold two fewer pills in 2002, she would have gotten a 15-year sentence, he said. If she sold them today, it would be a seven-year sentence. Instead, she won't be released until 2023.

"There are many other people in similar situations who simply don't need to be there," he said. "It's a waste of money. We receive no public safety benefit whatsoever."

His organization supports full repeal of mandatory minimum drug laws — as states including Michigan, New York and Delaware have done — but he considers the piecemeal progress proposed by the Senate "a good reform."

Jim DeBeaugrine of the Center for Advanced Justice, a sentencing reform advocacy group, warned the committee that giving drug offenders shorter sentences will keep them out of prison only if they receive treatment for substance abuse and mental health issues.

"If you try to do it on the cheap, the result of this outcome is compromised," he said. "The only way you will ever end the issue of mass incarceration is you've got to stop putting so many people in prison."

Contact Mary Ellen Klas at meklas@miamiherald.com. Follow @MaryEllenKlas.

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