Kudos to a handful of state legislators — Republicans and Democrats — for addressing inequities in our criminal justice system.
One of the fundamental responsibilities of the state’s elected officials is to keep Floridians safe. Over the years, legislators have adopted “tough on crime” laws to address violent crime and drug trafficking.
While many of the changes to our criminal justice system had positive effects on reducing the violent crime rate, they also resulted in some regrettable, unintended consequences.
Getting tough on crime is a laudable goal; getting smart on crime is a better one. To do that, we must learn from our mistakes.
One of the most glaring errors was the imposition of minimum mandatory sentences that took away a judge’s discretion to weigh all factors and circumstances. This has led judges to reluctantly hand down disproportionately harsh sentences because their hands were tied.
Over the past two decades we have been sending more people to prison for a longer time — many of whom are nonviolent offenders.
In Florida, we incarcerate roughly 100,000 inmates and supervise nearly 166,000 offenders in the community at an annual cost of $2.4 billion.
Almost 15 percent of inmates are in prison for drug-related offenses. The average annual cost to taxpayers per inmate is $20,000. The toll on the families of those “over-sentenced” is even higher.
Last year, the Legislature passed HB 7125, a promising start to smart justice reform. We still need to address mandatory minimum sentences, rehabilitation to reduce recidivism, skyrocketing court fines and fees and the need for judicial discretion.
Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Orange Park, has filed SB 346, which is intended to steer low-level drug offenders away from prison. As chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, Bradley, a former prosecutor, is in an influential position to guide meaningful smart justice reforms through the Senate.
Bradley has stated that it’s time to stop sending addicts and low-level users to a prison system designed for violent criminals.
His bill has already passed the Criminal Justice Committee on a 5-0 vote. If Bradley can get sentencing reform done in the Senate, he might run into a roadblock in the House, where common-sense criminal justice reforms often end up dying.
This year, two state representatives are trying to change that. Rep. Alex Andrade, R-Pensacola, is the sponsor of HB 339 relating to drug trafficking offenses. Rep. Bobby DuBose, D-Fort Lauderdale, is the sponsor of HB 239 on wrongful incarceration.
Their bills could eventually be matched up with Bradley’s bill or one of the other Senate sentencing reform bills.
Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, has introduced SB 468. His bill, like Bradley’s, would eliminate some minimum mandatory sentences and sensibly restore judicial discretion to sentencing. His bill cleared the Judiciary Committee on a 5-1 vote, preparing the way for it to be heard in the Criminal Justice Appropriations Committee, which he chairs.
Legislators realized previous sentences went too far. Their goal was to target drug dealers, but regular people were getting caught up in the trafficking laws when they tried to buy or sell pain pills on the street.
Over the past five years Florida lawmakers made changes to sentencing laws for possessing or selling certain amounts of prescription opioids such as oxycodone.
An excellent investigative report by Emily Mahoney from the Tampa Bay Times described a gross inequity that affects nearly a thousand Florida inmates who "find themselves in legal purgatory.”
Even though higher thresholds were put in place for drug trafficking, there were still inmates serving 15 years for the sale of as few as 22 hydrocodone pills.
An obscure clause in the state Constitution prohibited legislators from retroactively applying sentencing changes to those already sentenced under the old laws.
Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, who served on the Constitution Revision Commission, put the issue before voters in 2018 by inserting language in Amendment 11 to remove that obstacle. It passed.
Now Rouson has introduced SB 902 laying out a framework for judges to re-sentence inmates who are serving outdated sentences that are no longer in Florida law.
These three state senators — Bradley, Brandes, Rouson — and two state representatives — Andrade, DuBose— deserve our kudos and our support in bringing attention to their efforts for common-sense smart justice sentencing reforms.
Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland. She is now a registered NPA. PBDockery@gmail.com.