Senate Minimum Mandatories

Written by:Julian Stroleny PortraitJulian Stroleny

Florida Senate Committee Votes for Discretion on Drug Trafficking Sentences

On November 6th, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted with almost unanimous support to give judges more leeway when departing from minimum mandatory sentences for a variety of non-violent drug trafficking offenses. The committee voted in favor of the measure 5-1. The bill has two more committee requirements before reaching the Senate floor.

The legislation, SB 468, is sponsored by Sen. Jeff Brandes, (R) St. Petersburg. A more sweeping reform measure was debated last year, that included judicial safety valves,  before stalling in the same committee.

Over the past twenty years, we have been throwing more people in prison for more time — many of whom are non-violent criminals. Criminal defense lawyers point out that in Florida, we imprison roughly 100,000 prisoners and oversee nearly 166,000 offenders in society at a yearly expense of $2.4 billion. Roughly 15 percent of prisoners are in custody for drug-related crimes. The typical yearly cost to taxpayers per prisoner is $20,000. The toll on the relatives of those “over-sentenced” is even greater.

A Change Deemed Necessary by Criminal Defense Attorneys

Brandes argued before the committee that judges across Florida are seeking more discretion. “Today, judges’ hands are tied,” Brandes noted. “There are stories of judges with tears in their eyes, handing out sentences that they know are wrong. . . but they have no choice.”

In this bill, judges would be allowed to depart from minimum mandatory sentences in certain drug trafficking cases only when: (1) the defendant did not “engage in a continuing criminal enterprise,” (2) did not use a weapon or threaten violence, or (3) cause death or serious bodily injury.

Bradley’s bill also includes terms that would require law enforcement organizations to record interviews of defendants, a provision largely supported by criminal attorneys. Another requirement would make it simpler for wrongfully imprisoned inmates to be eligible for state compensation. 

Nancy Daniels, from the Florida Public Defender Association, argued to the committee that minimum mandatory guidelines pertain to 47 distinct drug crimes, and taxpayers — as well as those accused — are paying too much.

But several legislators expressed reservations. Sen. Travis Hutson, (R) Palm Coast, was afraid that the bill would allow jurists to depart in cases that included the most dangerous street drugs. Sen. Hutson submitted the only nay vote.

Spokespersons from the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association and the Florida Sheriffs Association refused to speak against the legislation, but warned the committee they stay opposed. Sen. Dennis Baxley, (R) Ocala, said he was concerned that the bill would promote leniency.

Similar criminal reform laws have garnered bi-partisan support and the support of diverse groups, from criminal defense attorney groups to the ACLU.

Recent Progress in Criminal Justice Reform

Recently, the Senate Criminal Justice Committee passed a measure by Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Orange Park, that would cap jail sentences for the purchase or possession of less than two grams of a controlled substance — not including fentanyl — at 12 months.

In addition to turning less-severe offenders away from state prisons, SB 346 would also allow judges to depart from minimum mandatory sentences, in some circumstances, for drug trafficking crimes with a 25-year mandatory sentence.

Contemporary criminal justice reforms are a move in the right direction, Bradley said,  but to really make an impact, we need to go further.” Bradley’s bill would start judicial safety valves simply for non-violent crimes and ones that don’t entail an ongoing criminal enterprise. Defendants with prior records of forceable felonies would not be qualified.

Bradley quoted research by the Legislature’s Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability that reveals minimum mandatories can result to elevated rates of recidivism.

Florida Police Chiefs Association voiced their concerns, stating they thought the measure would be too soft on traffickers who are found with considerable amounts of drugs.

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