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Senate committee moves criminal justice reform package

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Sen. Jeff BrandesA Senate panel has approved a 243-page measure that bundles together several bills into a single criminal justice reform package.

The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice voted on February 25 to advance SB 1308 by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg.

With only three weeks left in the session and committees wrapping up their work, the Senate is combining its criminal justice reform measures into a single bill, Brandes said.

“The amendment includes many bills that you have voted for or seen before,” Brandes said.

Among other things, the measure would speed the release of aging and seriously ill inmates, make it easier for wrongfully incarcerated prisoners to obtain compensation, make it easier to use DNA technology to prove a wrongful conviction, and allow people convicted of crimes when they were 25 or younger to apply for a sentencing review.

The latter, the so-called “Second Look Act,” would apply to most felons, except those convicted of murder or serving life sentences.

“The character is not static,” Brandes said. “We have seen people who are in their early years who have committed crimes, and get incarcerated, and are radically different people in their 40s and 50s than when they were in their 20s.”

SB 1308 would also give judges the ability to depart from minimum mandatory sentences for certain drug trafficking offenses, a reform sponsored by Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley, R-Orange Park.

Florida Sheriffs Association deputy executive director Matt Dunagan urged the committee not to approve the measure, saying minimum mandatory sentencing “is something that is providing and assisting in Florida’s 50-year crime low.”

“It’s also important to distinguish traffickers are not the end users,” Dunagan said. “What we have with the minimum mandatory sentences is the ability to go after and arrest those that are peddling these very dangerous drugs in our communities.”

The so-called “judicial safety valves” for drug trafficking offenses are contained in Bradley’s SB 346.

It would also have capped sentences for non-violent, first-time drug offenders at 12 months, but only for suspects arrested with less than two grams of illegal drugs, excluding fentanyl.

But Bradley agreed to make changes after meeting with prosecutors and Attorney General Ashley Moody. The new version sets the drug possession threshold at a single gram.

Supporters of minimum mandatory reforms argue that judges are being forced to sentence non-violent offenders to long prison terms when rehabilitation would be cheaper and more effective.

But Dunagan said the Florida Sheriffs Association researched Florida’s prison records and could not find a single inmate serving time for a first-time drug trafficking offense.

“Once someone finally ends up in the Department of Corrections, they have [engaged in] a lot of criminal behavior,” Dunagan said.

Brandes countered that most criminal cases are resolved without a trial and that minimum mandatories are forcing innocent suspects to accept plea bargains that include prison time.

“Mandatory minimums often hang over the defendant’s head like a sword,” Brandes said. “The overwhelming evidence is that they don’t work.”

SB 1308 faces one more vote in the Senate Appropriations Committee before reaching the floor. Some House companion bills tied to the reforms have yet to move.

But House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami, told reporters recently that he is “very open” to loosening some sentencing laws for drug trafficking offenses. The session is scheduled to adjourn March 13.

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