Moms condemn lengthy prison terms as Senate weighs sentencing reforms

Families and friends of Florida inmates rally in the Capitol to call for sentencing reform. At the podium, Rep. Dianne Hart and Sen. Randolph Bracy speak in favor of expanding gain time. Florida trails most of the nation in offering gain time. Photo: Laura Cassels

Mothers of young men behind bars implored Florida lawmakers this week to reform decades-old sentencing guidelines that they say are unjust, excessive, and devastating to families.

“If there’s no changes, my son will stay in prison until his death,” said Brenda Kay Spitzbarth, whose son, Dustin Sims, is serving life for armed robbery. “A life sentence takes away all hope and replaces it with only survival.”

Brenda Kay Spitzbarth pleads on behalf of her son, Dustin Sims, sentenced to life imprisonment with no means of early release. Seated behind her is Audrey Hudgins, whose son William also is serving a life sentence. Photo: The Florida Channel

Audrey Jennings Hudgins, whose son, William Jennings, is serving life for armed robbery, said the statute under which her son and Spitzbarth’s were sentenced to prison for life with no hope of release is excessively harsh, especially since they caused no physical injuries in the commission of their crimes.

“I have never believed my son should not pay his debt to society. However, a natural-life sentence cannot be justified for non-fatal, no-physical-harm crimes,” Hudgins said. “There’s not one minute of one day that his family has not served this sentence, as well.”

Hudgins and Spitzbarth were among the mothers who testified Tuesday before the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, where Sen. Jeff Brandes is sponsoring legislation to repeal severe sentences imposed under the law called the Prison Releasee Reoffender (PRR) statute.

That law mandates maximum sentences, with no chance for early release, for offenders who commit a second crime within three years of being released from incarceration for a prior offense, even if the first offense was committed as a juvenile.

“There may be no law on the books as unjust as PRR. I would, if I could, wipe it off the map today,” Brandes, a Pinellas County Republican, said.

More mothers – and fathers and children and spouses and friends – of inmates added their voices Wednesday, gathering on the steps of the historic Capitol to call for sentencing reforms. Those reforms include repealing PRR, eliminating minimum-mandatory sentences, expanding gain time, which can shorten sentences for good behavior, and “Second Look,” which authorizes a review of sentences for young offenders.

Gain time, also called good time, is earned with good behavior and can shorten an inmate’s sentence. Florida sets a low cap on gain time. Source: Prison Fellowship

Reform advocates say gain time would be the most impactful of the reforms. Florida allows inmates to shorten their sentences with gain time by only 15 percent, while Texas, Arkansas and Mississippi allow inmates to earn credits that can cut their sentences by half. Alabama allows gain time that can reduce sentences by up to 72 percent.

Increasing gain time in Florida to just 35 percent would save $860 million to $870 million over five years, according to two budget estimates.

Reform-minded lawmakers joined the families and friends of Florida inmates who rallied in the Capitol Wednesday. They said that if gain time is not adopted by the Legislature, they will work to have it adopted by voters as a constitutional amendment.

“If we can’t get it through as a bill, let’s get it on the ballot by petition,” said Rep. Dianne Hart, a Hillsborough County Democrat sponsoring gain-time legislation.

Meanwhile, mothers said they are not seeking to shield their sons from punishment but are fighting to see that each punishment fits the crime. They also are seeking safer, more humane incarceration for their sons and rehabilitative programs including education and treatment for drug addictions.

Brenda Mills tells senators why they should revise long sentences for crimes committed by young people. Seated three rows behind her are Audrey Hudgins, on the left, and Lisa Wilson, who testifed on behalf of their sons, serving life sentences. Photo: Florida Channel

“My son was a thief, not a murderer, not a rapist. He was a child going through the possibility of losing his mother to cancer, trying to drown out his pain, and made bad choices. He deserves a second chance,” said Brenda Mills, whose son, Samuel Mills, is serving a 7 ½-year sentence for burglary, according to the Florida Department of Corrections. She said he has been injured repeatedly.

“I do not like what the Florida prison system is are doing to inmates and their families. They are not setting them up for success in life after prison.”

Prosecutors are not as welcoming to sentencing-reform measures.

Arthur “Buddy” Jacobs, longtime general counsel to the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association, defended the existing sentencing framework and applauded the former legislators who adopted it decades ago.

“Law enforcement and prosecutors took those laws, and that is why the crime rate is the lowest it has been in 50 years,” Jacobs said during the Criminal Justice hearing.

Reacting to Jacobs, committee member Sen. Jason Pizzo, a Miami-Dade Democrat, issued a blistering condemnation of the sentencing guidelines, calling them a “shameful” patchwork of special-interest bills passed by former lawmakers who were at best “not paying attention.”

Sen. Jason Pizzo says he ran for office to help repeal decades-old sentencing statutes that put too many people behind bars, especially black men. Photo: The Florida Channel

“Along the way, whether you were a witness to it or not, a lot of things were put together, a lot of things were put in place that did not consider, and did not care for, the black male, in this Legislature, for many years, sir. It’s the reason why I ran,” Pizzo said. A disproportionate number of Florida’s 96,000 inmates are black, according to a “Racial/Ethnic Impact Statement” prepared for senators last year by Florida State University criminology researchers.

Mothers Mills, Hudgins, and Spitzbarth each said their sons have expressed remorse and have matured. They asked for greater access to education and rehabilitative programs to prepare their sons for the early releases the moms hope will come.

Spitzbarth, fighting tears, said her son’s sentence, had he not been a reoffender, would have been a nine-year prison term, instead of life with no chance of early release. Under Brandes’ bill revising the PRR, her son’s sentence could reduce to 25 years, allowing him to leave prison in 2039.

“Our family prays daily for his safety while we wait for the laws to change. … If he can survive, he will be 52 years old when released,” Spitzbarth said, adding she would be 86 and “waiting for him.” She urged senators to approve Brandes’ sentencing reform measures.

“It’s the right thing to do,” she said. “My son’s life matters.”

Greg Newburn, with Families Against Minimum Mandatories, called the Prison Releasee Reoffender law “pernicious” and “unnecessarily punitive” legislation adopted by former legislators who were “irrationally addicted to excessive sentencing.”

“This is a moral emergency that has been building up for decades,” Newburn said.

Brandes’ bills to revise the PRR law and create a Second Look program passed in committee.

Brandes also supports abolishing most mandatory minimum sentences and expanding opportunities for inmates to earn rehabilitation credits, or gain time, toward early release by engaging in recommended programs.