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Senate panel moves Florida’s First Step Act

Senior Editor Regular News

Florida’s “First Step Act” cleared its first hurdle March 4, winning unanimous approval by the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.

Named after similar federal legislation, SB 642, by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, would give non-violent drug traffickers a “judicial safety valve” to avoid minimum mandatory sentences and inmates who participate in rehabilitation programs a shot at earlier release.

Sen. Jeff BrandesOther reforms would create “prison entrepreneurship” programs to teach inmates new skills, reduce the likelihood that “technical” probation violations will result in a return trip to prison, and allow non-profits and non-governmental agencies to create reentry programs.

Brandes stressed that the Florida First Step Act was just the beginning.

“If I could wave a magic wand, I would move the state away from minimum mandatory sentencing in a heartbeat,” Brandes said.

The measure originally encouraged the Department of Corrections to place inmates within 150 miles of their families, but Brandes amended the bill to widen the radius to 300 miles.

“Our problem is, most of the prisons are in the Panhandle and most of the people are down south,” Brandes said.

Another amendment to require the Department of Corrections to notify inmates of any outstanding terms of their sentences when they are released, including, “unpaid restitution, court costs, fees, or fines” gave Rep. Randolph Bracy, an Orlando Democrat, pause. Bracy worried the provision would narrow the scope of Amendment 4 that voters approved overwhelmingly in November. Amendment 4 calls for the automatic restoration of most felons’ civil rights upon the completion of their prison sentences.

“Now I’m a little unsure of where I am with this bill,” Bracy said.

Bracy ended up voting for the bill, but he told reporters after the committee meeting that he intends to vote against the measure if the restitution language isn’t removed.

Scott McCoy, a senior policy counsel for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said by excluding robbery from the definition of “non-violent,” SB 642 would exclude too many minority defendants to make it a true reform.

“Sixty-seven percent of people in prison for robbery are black, and they would be ineligible,” McCoy said. “This bill has a safety valve and that safety valve applies to one crime, drug trafficking. The percentage of people that have that conviction are disproportionately white.”

McCoy reminded committee members that African-Americans have been the biggest victims of the war on drugs. African-Americans make up just 16.9 percent of Florida’s population, but 49 percent of its prison population, McCoy said.

Brandes defended the measure, reminding committee members that for the first time in decades inmates who are willing to participate in rehabilitation programs would have the ability to avoid a mandate that they serve 85 percent of their sentences.

“We have to provide that opportunity to put back hope into the criminal justice system,” Brandes said. “This is the first step, not the only step. Every act I file will be the next step.”