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Criminal justice reform bills are left for another year

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Sen. Jeff BrandesFlorida trial judges will not be getting more discretion to depart from minimum mandatory sentences for drug trafficking offenses after a host of criminal justice reform measures failed to pass in the 2020 Legislative Session.

One of the prime sponsors, Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, predicted that major criminal justice reform will rest in the hands of future House leaders.

“The challenge right now is the Florida House, there needs to be a champion that rises up,” Brandes said.

Despite bipartisan Senate support, many measures faced strong opposition from law enforcement groups and stalled in the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee.

One casualty was Brandes’ SB 468, which would have allowed judges to depart from minimum mandatory sentences for some non-violent drug offenses.

Another failed Brandes measure, SB 550, would have steered more felons to prison diversion programs. Brandes also couldn’t win enough support for SB 572, which would have increased the amount of gain time inmates could earn on a monthly basis.

Other Brandes measures that fell by the wayside were SB 556 and SB 574, which would have permitted the early release of some seriously ill and aging inmates, respectively.

Late in the session, Senate Appropriations Chair Rob Bradley, R-Orange Park, bundled many of the reform proposals into SB 346, including judicial safety valves from minimum mandatory sentences, and more lenient criteria for compensating the wrongfully incarcerated.

SB 346 passed the Senate, 39-1, on February 26, but died on the House calendar.

House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Hialeah, told reporters that many major policy issues died as lawmakers were forced to turn their attention to fighting the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Any time that the focus is off of something, its ability to get through a difficult process is reduced,” Oliva said.

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