By Jim Ash
Judges won’t get more authority to depart from minimum mandatory drug sentences, but Florida lawmakers did sign off on other criminal justice reforms, including one sponsors are touting as “revolutionary.”
SB 1392 would create a first-of-its-kind centralized clearinghouse for criminal justice data, laying the groundwork, sponsors say, for future reforms.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is a revolutionary move by the Legislature,” said Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Clearwater. “This will make us a gold standard in the United States in how we collect and support criminal justice data in a way that is transparent and open to the public.”
It requires the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to gather in one place, and make accessible to the public, records that are now being kept by prison officials, county court clerks, local jailers, and others.
When it’s up and running within two years, the system will allow anyone to track a defendant’s progress through the criminal justice system, from arrest to sentencing, and compare the treatment with other defendants.
It was prompted by newspaper investigations showing wide sentencing disparities between white and African-American defendants.
An attempt by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, to create “judicial safety valves,” cleared Senate committees but was not supported in the House. SB 694 would have given judges narrow discretion to depart from minimum mandatory drug sentences for non-violent drug offenders.
“Judges, using their discretion, should be able to offer justice tempered with mercy,” Brandes told members of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Civil and Criminal Justice.
Progressive groups have long demanded similar reforms, but this year, the effort was also backed by conservative groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council, or “ALEC.” Marc Levin of the Texas-based “Right on Crime,” said locking up non-violent offenders is a waste of taxpayer dollars.
“Fifty-five percent of these people going to Florida prisons for drug minimum mandatory sentences have no prior offense, 63 percent have no prior incarceration, and over 400 are elderly,” Levin said. “We are putting people into prison for 10, 15, 20 years, with no judicial discretion, for a certain number of pills (and) these people are not a danger to public safety.”
But another conservative group, Florida Smart Justice Alliance, warned that the measure would allow lenient sentences for defendants caught with dangerous drugs like LSD or large amounts of others.
“We’re talking about giving people who have 25 pounds of pot a break. Are you kidding me? This is a joke!” FSJA’s President Barney Bishop told the committee.
Brandes also tried, unsuccessfully, to increase Florida’s $300 threshold for felony theft. The third-lowest in the nation, it hasn’t changed since 1986.
Brandes said the next Senate president is committed to the reforms, and the new data system will build momentum.
“The first step to making reforms is recognizing that you have a problem,” Brandes said.