The Republican-led Florida Senate advanced sweeping reforms to Florida’s criminal justice system Tuesday, as former inmates and their families pled for the state to back off on the hardline punishments of the past and move towards more common-sense sentencing that could ease crowded jails and offer offenders more hope for rehabilitation.
The reform package comes from state Senator Jeff Brandes, a Republican from St. Petersburg.
Criminal justice reform bills have been enacted in other Republican-leaning legislatures in recent years, but not in Florida. Brandes bill is bolstered this year by conservative support.
“We believe that the approach taken by Senator Brandes relies on policies that we’ve seen in place and proven in other states around the country that have had positive public safety results,” said David Safavian, the Deputy Director of the American Conservative Union based in Washington. “By safely lowering the incarceration populations, we also see that it frees up resources that can be re-allocated to more pressing priorities.”
Under one part of the proposal, non-violent offenders could have their sentences cut from the current maximum of 85 percent of time served down to 65 percent. The Florida Prosecutors Attorneys Association of Florida, the Florida Police Chiefs and the Florida Sheriffs Associations all oppose it.
Other bills have been filed this session to address the issue, known as “gain time,” but none have advanced.
Coral Nichols served five years for first-degree grand theft robbery. She testified before the Senate subcommittee:
“I can tell you that for three years (I was) counting the day for day, waiting for 85 percent gain time to kick in until I could actually begin accruing my good behavior,” she said.
Scott McCoy with the Southern Poverty Law Center Action Fund argued that “gain time” should be offered for violent offenders as well, because it would offer incentive for prisoners to improve themselves before release.
Laurette Philipsen with the group Florida Cares agreed, saying that she served with violent offenders during her time at Lowell Correctional Institute in Marion County.
“They have nothing but time,” she warned.
Brandes’ legislative package tackles a number of potential reforms:
-One would allow “retroactivity” in Florida’s criminal sentencing laws. The Florida Constitution previously banned the concept that an inmate’s sentence could change retroactively if the laws later changed. But that changed last fall, when voters approved state Constitutional Amendment 11. Brandes’ legislation would implement that amendment. Among other things, it would tackle mandatory minimum sentences.
In 2016, the Legislature repealed a measure that charged criminals who commit aggravated assault from qualifying for the 10-20-life law but that change doesn’t yet affect people already in prison under the law (the 10-20-life name comes from a set of three basic mandatory sentences in Florida when someone uses a firearm during a forcible felony).
Jill Trask told the committee that making a change this year could affect her husband, Joel. He’s served 11 years so far on a 20-year mandatory minimum sentence, simply for firing a warning gunshot. “He can’t survive another nine years,” she said, her voice trembling.
– Senator Randolph Bracy, an Orange County Democrat, sponsored an amendment calling for the Department of Corrections to commission a “racial impact” study for any proposed criminal justice bills moving forward. The idea is to determine how such laws would impact the racial disparity in Florida’s prisons, where blacks make up just 16 percent of the state’s population, yet represent 41 percent of the state’s prison makeup.
– Brandes’ bill also would increase the amount required to qualify as felony theft from $300 to $750 – a way to reduce the number of people who get charged with felonies for petty theft.
-It would keep people from losing their driver’s licenses if they can’t pay fines and fees.
The bill has to go through another committee in the Senate before getting matched up with similar legislation in the Florida House.
“Our goal is to focus on public safety, but to put hope back into the system, and we think that this is a major step going forward,” Brandes said after the meeting.