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Jeff Brandes outlines the new Amendment 4 implementation deal: ex-felons still have to pay, but a judge can waive the fees.

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Senate to amend House criminal justice overhaul

The Senate has been more audacious toward sentencing reform.

Instead of considering the Florida First Step Act (SB 642) as is, the Senate will take up and revise the House’s criminal justice overhaul.

The House version (HB 7125) sailed through the chamber nearly unanimously on Monday. Meanwhile, the Florida First Step Act — coined for the Senate criminal justice reform bill — hasn’t been taken up on the floor. 

St. Petersburg Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes, the bill’s sponsor, told Florida Politics the Senate will consider the House plan and amend it during the waning days of the Legislative Session, expected to wrap Friday. 

“We are working on a comprehensive amendment and wanted to make sure the House bill was here,” Brandes said in a text message.

The amendment could resemble some if not all of the language in the Florida First Step Act. There are marked differences between the two pieces of legislation, though it’s unclear how many will remain after the Senate makes selective changes to the House proposal.

Through the committee process, the Senate backed more-controversial measures.

For example, the Florida First Step Act seeks to help some inmates get out of prison earlier.

Currently, the state requires prisoners to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences. Brandes’ bill would lower that threshold to 65 percent for certain non-violent offenders. Inmates can chip away at their sentences by achieving “gain time” through things like merit-based and educational programs.

The House plan does not include the sentence-threshold change. And law enforcement groups, like the Florida Police Chiefs Association, are opposed to it. 

The Senate plan, unlike the House’s, also would make retroactive a 2016 change to a mandatory minimum for some instances of aggravated assault and attempted aggravated assault.

The House also shied away from Brandes’ push to offer judges discretion when sentencing some non-violent drug offenders who otherwise face mandatory minimums. 

Both bills, however, seek to help prisoners transition back into society after they’ve completed their sentences. Each would remove some occupational-licensing barriers for returning citizens and restrict the number of offenses that result in the revocation of a drivers license.

The two bills also would raise the felony-theft threshold, but the chambers have yet to agree to a new dollar figure. The House plan would raise it from $300 to $1,000. The Senate wants the new threshold to be $750.

Palm Coast Republican Rep. Paul Renner, sponsor of the House plan, said the changes “will not only allow for meaningful employment opportunities, but also reduce recidivism.”  

He added: “This legislation provides a framework that preserves our fifty-year low crime rate, but also takes a new approach to low-level, non-violent offenders.”

While controversial, the sentencing threshold change in the Senate legislation could result in massive savings — an estimated $860 million over five years — for the Department of Corrections. Those savings are tied to the diminished need for more than 9,000 prison beds, as forecasted by state economists.

Speaking to reporters after Monday’s floor session, Senate President Bill Galvano called the 65 percent floor a “good provision.”

“I think it’s something we really need to consider given the number of [full-time employees] that are lacking within the system, the pay that is available to the people that join the system, and the opportunity to rehabilitate depending on what the underlying crime is and the behavior of the inmate,” Galvano added.

Written By

Danny McAuliffe is a Tallahassee correspondent for Florida Politics. He is a graduate of Florida State University, where he served as the editor of the FSView & Florida Flambeau. He is a lifelong Floridian and indulges in swimming, hiking, running and memes when the news cycle permits. Reach him at dmcauliffe500@gmail.com.

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