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Push for criminal justice reforms on the horizon

Senior Editor Regular News

Push for criminal justice reforms on the horizon

‘These aren’t partisan issues; these are principled issues’

Senior Editor

Despite setbacks in the 2018 session, lawmakers are vowing to keep fighting for criminal justice reforms, including giving judges more leeway to depart from minimum mandatory sentences.

Even with crime at a 46-year low, Florida prisons are crowded and dangerously understaffed, and that’s forcing lawmakers to rethink get-tough-on-crime measures that date back to the 1980s, said Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg.

Sen. Jeff Brandes “We have 96,000 inmates today in Florida, and we have guards for about 86,000 of them,” Brandes said. “We think there’s a variety of different things Florida needs to do. We’re just beginning to ask the tough questions.”

One of Brandes’ bills, SB 964, would have given judges the ability to depart from minimum mandatory sentences for drug trafficking if the defendant was non-violent, did not use a weapon, and was not part of a “continuing criminal enterprise.”

“We have to stop treating addicts and drug mules like kingpins,” Brandes said.

Sen. Randolph Bracy The measure cleared several committees but died on the Senate calendar when the House failed to take it up. Another measure, by Senate Criminal Justice Chair Randolph Bracy, D-Orlando, would have raised the monetary threshold for felony theft from $300 to $1,500.

Florida has the fourth-lowest felony theft threshold in the nation, and lawmakers haven’t raised it since 1986. Bracy’s bill cleared several committees but died in the Rules Committee. A House companion also cleared several committees, but never made it to the House floor.

Progressives have been calling for similar reforms for years. But legislators from both parties, afraid to be labeled soft on crime, have blocked them or looked the other way. But now conservative groups like the James Madison Institute and the American Legislative Exchange Council are supporting the reforms as sound economic policy. And with studies predicting a mini prison-population boom in Florida in 2021, Brandes calls many of the measures, “low-hanging fruit.”

Not all conservative groups, however, support the changes. Florida Smart Justice Alliance President Barney Bishop called easing minimum mandatory sentences, even for non-violent drug traffickers, “a joke.” Bishop argued that someone would have to possess 20 pounds of marijuana — enough to fill 20 school backpacks — before qualifying as a trafficker. Anyone with that much of the drug is not a casual user who deserves a break, Bishop said.

“You’re helping drug traffickers,” Bishop said.

This year, Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, successfully pushed for the expansion of “civil citation” or pre-trial diversion programs, to the delight of juvenile justice reform advocates. Negron also supported a House proposal — the creation of a publicly accessible criminal justice data clearinghouse overseen by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Negron steps down next year, but Brandes said he has a commitment from incoming Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, that criminal justice reforms will remain a high priority.

Felony theft threshold reform and judicial safety valves were included in a long list of reforms recommended by the Crime and Justice Institute in a report the Legislature commissioned in 2016.

The study found approximately 108 offenses in Florida statutes that carry a minimum mandatory term and allow for no judicial discretion. Forty seven of the 108 offenses are attached to drug crimes.

The study also showed that 37 percent of Florida inmates were sentenced under a minimum mandatory or other enhancement in 2016, a 19 percent increase over the year before. The study also found that 63 percent of admissions in 2016 were for non-violent crimes.

Florida’s incarceration rate is 21 percent higher than the national average, according to the study. Critics of minimum mandatory sentences warned lawmakers that weakening judicial discretion would result in mass incarceration and widespread injustice.

“The problem with our mandatory minimums [in drug cases] is the weights are all over the place,” said ACLU spokesman Raymer Maguire, who is serving as manager for the Campaign for Criminal Justice Reform. “For marijuana, the threshold for trafficking is 25 pounds. For heroin or cocaine, the trafficking amount is two or three weeks-worth of the drug for a heavy user. For opioids, we’re looking at two or three days-worth of pills.”

The campaign is an umbrella organization of several groups. This year, the campaign designated a Jacksonville woman, Marissa Alexander, as an “ambassador,” to tell her story to lawmakers.

Alexander was given a 20-year prison sentence for aggravated assault under Florida’s “10-20-Life,” law for firing a warning shot at her husband in 2010. Alexander, who was caring for her three-day-old infant, said she was trying to scare her husband into leaving the house after he flew into an uncontrollable rage. No one was injured.

Alexander’s conviction was later overturned and she agreed to a plea bargain that included time served. Her case inspired lawmakers to enact a warning shot exception for minimum mandatory sentences for aggravated assault, but much more needs to change, Maguire says.

“Our organization wants to end mandatory minimums in Florida. Period. Judicial safety valves are an important first step,” he said.

Brandes said he’s confident that the momentum for changes will continue.

“What I think you’re seeing is a growing bipartisan movement of groups on both the left and the right and legislators on both the left and the right,” Brandes said. “These aren’t partisan issues; these are principled issues.”

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