Senators on sentencing reform: Sometimes justice demands a second chance

Behind bars. Credit: David McNew/Getty Images

A package of criminal justice reforms that would put fewer Floridians behind bars was approved Tuesday by senators who said it represents justice overdue.

“This will become the substantial criminal justice package for this year,” said Sen. Jeff Brandes, a Pinellas County Republican who has pushed for two years to overhaul Florida’s burgeoning criminal-justice system.

Brandes’ bill removes most mandatory minimum sentences and restores sentencing discretion for judges. The repeal of mandatory minimum sentencing is opposed by prosecutors and law-enforcement officers who want prosecutors, not judges, to have discretion over sentencing.

The bill is expected to reduce the number of offenders sent to prison and reduce sentences for some who are already behind bars. It also requires authorities to review and possibly reduce sentences of inmates imprisoned as young people on life sentences with no possibility of release.

“Sometimes justice demands a second chance,” Brandes said.

Brandes extensively amended his bill Tuesday to bring in key provisions from other criminal-justice reform bills, including changes to allow a small number of elderly or gravely ill inmates to be released early under certain conditions and expanding access to state compensation for people who were wrongfully convicted and incarcerated.

Seventy-two people have been exonerated in Florida after collectively serving hundreds of years in prison, including 29 who were sentenced to Death Row and imprisoned for a collective 245 years, according to the Innocence Project of Florida and the Death Penalty Information Center.

Critics expressed concern about the minimum mandatory issue.

“Those that are ending up in our prison system have a long history of criminal behavior that has eventually led them to state prison,” said Matt Dunagan, a deputy executive director with the Florida Sheriffs Assocation. He argued that state attorneys have used their discretion to good effect and that few people in prison are there inappropriately. “You shouldn’t have a judge be able to downward depart [from sentencing guidelines].”

Brandes strongly disagreed: “The overwhelming evidence on mandatory minimums is that they do not work.” He said the thing they do well is to land more people in prison without trials.

Sen. Darryl Rouson, a Democrat from Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, asked Dunagan what could make prosecutors better qualified to exercise discretion than judges.

“Do you think judges are capable of taking into discretion a long criminal history?” Rouson asked. He said it is “disingenuous” for the law-enforcement community to oppose judges exercising discretion in sentencing when the Legislature authorizes police officers and deputies to exercise discretion in making arrests.

Brandes agreed.

“They have incredible discretion … in their job every day, and we’re grateful for that discretion,” he said. “We give that discretion directly to the officer. We should in turn give that discretion directly to the judge. They’re the ones we’ve asked to be impartial in the determinations on justice issues, and that’s what this bill looks to do.”

Brandes thanked his colleagues for supporting reforms he believes are more just, humane and reasonable than the sentencing guidelines that have packed Florida’s prisons with 96,000 inmates, a disproportionate number of them being poor people and people of color.