Building off criminal justice reforms made last Session, reform-minded lawmakers seek to overhaul criminal sentencing in 2020.
The list of legislative reform aspirations looks similar to that of items cut from last year’s First Step Act. That’s because the same proponents believe the bill, named for its federal namesake, can be a launchpad to a second step.
Removing some mandatory minimum sentences, earlier possible releases for model behavior and aggravated assault resentencing didn’t make last year’s cut. But Republican Sens. Jeff Brandes and Rob Bradley want to revitalize those measures — and have the Senate’s support.
The Senate Criminal Justice Committee, led by Gainesville Republican Sen. Keith Perry, has already passed most priorities in pre-Session meetings. And Bradley, a former prosecutor, chairs the Appropriations Committee, a panel critical for bills that change the justice system’s expenses.
Brandes, of St. Petersburg, filed 18 criminal justice bills ahead of the Session, which begins Tuesday. His package includes giving judges broader sentencing discretion (SB 550 and SB 552) and increasing the amount of possible gaintime inmates may earn each month (SB 572).
Perry called addressing gaintime one of the most substantial changes the Legislature could make to the criminal justice system. He likened the current system to giving people a paycheck for not doing bad behavior rather than promoting good behavior.
“If we don’t have that behavior modeled in prison, it’s hard to expect somebody to model that upon their release,” Pery said. “If you haven’t worked, if you haven’t attended some classes or got certifications or training, if there’s not something you’ve done on a consistent basis day after day, it’s going to be very difficult for you to get out and to model that behavior.”
And one priority bill (SB 468), by Brandes, would eliminate minimum sentencing and fine requirements if the convicted person did not engage in a continuing criminal enterprise or commit or threaten violence. That bill must pass his own justice appropriations subcommittee before going through Appropriations, both of which it’s expected to pass.
Though prison understaffing and over-population has plagued the state’s criminal justice system in recent years, the state’s prison population reached its lowest level last decade by June, according to state economists. Declining prison admissions fueled the trend down to 95,626 in June from more than 100,000 at the decade’s opening.
Bradley views drug addiction as a two-part issue for the Legislature — justice and addiction treatment. His past measures successfully passed include sending more money to drug courts and reducing prison sentences for abusing some painkillers.
Bradley’s next step in the saga is his bill (SB 346) to eliminate the mandate for some drug charges. Fast-tracked during pre-Session meetings, the bill awaits approval Thursday from his committee as the last hearing before a Senate-wide vote.
Prisons, the Fleming Island Senator says, are designed to hold the state’s violent offenders, not drug addicts. About 4% or 5% of the state’s prison population are currently incarcerated only on drug possession offenses.
“All I’m saying is that the judge should have that ability to review an individual’s record and have the option of going down the path of recovery rather than prison,” Bradley said.
Sentences for possessing less than 2 grams of most drugs are capped at 12 months under the proposed law. And judges could undercut current sentencing minimums for nonviolent offenders.
The House Criminal Justice Subcommittee has yet scheduled SB 346’s House companion (HB 339) for its first committee vote. Still, that bill has support from a bipartisan group of House lawmakers.
And the Florida Department of Corrections (DOC), led by Secretary Mark Inch, has its own legislative priorities for the Session, including securing pay raises for its correctional officers to combat low morale and high turnover in the department. Gov. Ron DeSantis has embraced the effort and bookmarked pay raises and a retention plan in his $91.4 billion budget.
That budget includes $1.5 million to investigate correctional officers’ abuses and $5.2 million for security equipment and dedicated security officers. Perry believes this and helping to boost officers’ morale will benefit the department and inmates in the long term.
“I think that what we’re doing is we’re pushing some of these guys and ladies to a point where it’s going to be unsustainable and you’re going to start seeing more and more of those unfortunate newsworthy items when something goes wrong,” Perry said.
The measures, with inevitable tweaks as the Legislature and DOC tussle over the “must-pass” effort, will eventually reach Bradley’s committee.
“I have faith in Secretary Inch’s ability to get the job done,” Bradley said. “I’m very impressed, and I also believe that we need to deal with increasing the compensation for our correctional officers.”
Another aspiration for these reformist Senators is to revisit sentencing for inmates whose offenses have since seen reduced sentences. In 2016, the Legislature passed Bradley’s proposal removing 10-20-Life sentences as a possibility for aggravated assault as the lone offense.
“I think that being retro on some of these is important because if we thought that it was a bad policy that we’re changing, if people were sentenced under those same bad policies, then we should consider being retro with some of those areas,” Perry said.
While the priorities sound ambitious, proponents have the Florida First Step Act to thank for making them seem attainable.
Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida disparaged the First Step Act as a “small step.” But within the Legislature, the general consensus was the bill carried some of the biggest reforms of the past decade.
The package only received two official no-votes across both chambers. Republican Rep. Mike Hill worried it was soft on crime while Democratic Sen. Randolph Bracy thought it came too short. Republican Rep. MaryLynn Magar was opposed, but was recorded as a yes while she led the vote from the dais.
“I think we had some good progress,” Perry said. “I mean, to get anything done, we haven’t had any real changes, and to have the Florida First Step I think was pretty monumental.”