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Senate votes to relax mandatory minimums for drug possession

Third-rail issue no more.

In one of several criminal justice reforms being pushed for 2020, the Senate voted 39-1 to relax some drug-related mandatory minimums.

SB 346, sponsored by Sen. Rob Bradley, would increase judicial discretion in sentencing nonviolent offenders in their first drug possession conviction.

Bradley noted that this was a “third rail” back in 2013 but now has support from the Florida Prosecutors Association.

Bradley, a Republican from Fleming Island in his last term in the Senate, questioned the utility of putting low-level offenders in state prison.

Though the Senator sees drugs as a “scourge” on society, he contends that there are better ways to address those problems than the status quo.

Under the proposal, those convicted for the first time of buying or possessing less than two grams of any narcotic, excluding fentanyl and its derivatives, would not have to serve more than a year in jail.

Departures from mandatory minimums are conditional, at the discretion of sentencing judges. However, there are some prerequisites.

Defendants must not have had guns when committing crimes. They must never have been convicted of a violent felony crime. And they must be seen as having “truthfully” confessed to law enforcement.

Sentence changes aren’t the only reform elements in the legislation, which also allows for recorded interrogations and compensation for those wrongfully locked up since 2008.

Changes being considered for mandatory minimums come at a time when the state prison system is under unsustainable demographic, infrastructural, and staffing crises that have burdened the system past its breaking point.

Gov. Ron DeSantis spotlighted increased spending for the Department of Corrections when rolling out his budget proposal before the 2020 Session.

Among the high points: $60.6 million for retention incentives; $29.1 million for a pilot program for 8.5-hour shifts; $2.2 million for sergeants to combat gang activity; $3 million for security enhancement equipment.

Bradley noted potential savings of $50 million, even as he said they weren’t what was driving the bill, which he termed “the right thing to do.”

The measure could reduce the prison population by up to 4,800.

The bill would raise quantities for levels of prosecution, allowing for judicial discretion in those cases. The objection is that crime prevention and maintaining historical lows in crime rates justifies the expense incurred.

The House, meanwhile, looks promising.

As WUSF reported, House Speaker José Oliva told reporters that the House is ready to discuss sentencing reform for low-level drug possession cases, despite the bill not moving yet.

“Next week we are in week 7. All things really need to start to move next week or we are looking at delays,” Oliva, a Miami Lakes Republican, said last week.

Written By

A.G. Gancarski has been a correspondent for FloridaPolitics.com since 2014. In 2018, he was a finalist for an Association of Alternative Newsweeklies "best political column." He can be reached at AG@FloridaPolitics.com

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