Senate Appropriations Chair Rob Bradley’s marquee criminal justice reform bill is headed to a vote by the full chamber. The measure would put a cap on sentences for low-level drug possession, and allow judges to use discretion in sentencing traffickers.
A key provision of the bill says people who are arrested with two grams or less of any drug, except fentanyl, can’t be given a sentence of more than one year. Bill sponsor Rob Bradley points to a report commissioned by the Legislature from the state Program Policy Analysis office as to why he thinks that’s sound policy.
“According to pages 19 and 20 of the OPPAGA report, low-level offenders sent to prison had higher rates of recidivism compared to identical offenders who received sentences of community supervision,” Bradley said during Thursday’s Appropriations Committee meeting. “What we now know is, we can divert low-level drug offenders from state prison and it won’t affect public safety. In fact, it may make us safer.”
Bradley faced questions from some of his colleagues on the sentencing cap. Like this one, from Republican Sen. Tom Lee:
“I know there’s a lot of talk about moving away from mandatory minimums, but here we create – looks like a mandatory maximum? What was the thought there on the ‘no longer than 12 months?”
Bradley says what it boils down to is keeping low-level offenders out of prison.
“That is not what this does. What this says is that, in those small amounts, you won’t go to state prison, you’ll stay in the county system,” Bradley explained. “It’s not meant to make a maximum amount, it’s just saying you can’t go above 12 months.”
If passed by the legislature, the bill would also give judges to depart from mandatory minimums and fines for people convicted of drug trafficking, if these circumstances are present:
“The defendant has no prior forcible felony, the defendant and accomplice did not use or make threats of using violence or possess a dangerous weapon, the offense didn’t result in serious injury or death of another, the defendant was not a supervisor or organizer of the offense or engaged in continuing criminal enterprise, the defendant cooperates and provides information concerning the offense, and the defendant hasn’t previously benefitted from this statutory provision that I’m describing,” Bradley read from his legislation.
Bradley gave an example of the types of situations judges might elect to steer away from mandatory minimum sentences.
“For instance, if the defendant is an addict who shows potential in life, and is able to demonstrate that to the court, the court could fashion a sentence where probation is more appropriate than spending seven years in prison,” Bradley said. “And we could perhaps reclaim a life, rather than send that individual to a life that is very expensive for taxpayers and will not have a lot of hope for the future.”
The Orange Park Republican points to sizeable savings to the state that provisions in his bill would bring – namely from keeping people incarcerated for less time.
Democratic Senator Audrey Gibson says she wants that savings re-invested into the ailing prison system, which is struggling with – among other things – retention of correctional officers.
“I believe that we should have policy or budget language that requires us to reinvest the dollars that are saved back into the system,” Gibson said. “And Senator Montford, I told him, then we can pay your folks higher salaries.”
Though Bradley highlights the potential savings, he says that’s not his sole motivation for bringing the bill.
“I’m not advocating for this bill because it’s a way to save money - I’m advocating for this because I think this is the right thing to do,” he said. “I think that judges should be allowed to be judges in the particular circumstances, when you’re dealing with drug crimes.”
But Gary Hester, a lobbyist with the Florida Police Chief’s Association, has concerns.
“I think many have described drug traffickers and drug dealers as a low level, nonviolent criminals, or low-level non-violent crime,” Hester told lawmakers. “I believe this is an inaccurate assertion.”
Hester went on to read statistics to lawmakers on the number of deaths last year in Florida, more than 4,700, associated with various drugs. Atop that list is fentanyl, which is carved out of the bill.
“I understand what Senator Bradley’s trying to do, and we applaud that – in attempting to thread the needle in preventing people from going to prison who don’t need to be in prison. But at the same time we can’t ignore that drug traffickers are killing people in our state,” Hester said.
Greg Newburn with advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums Is backing Bradley. In a fiery testimony, he told lawmakers mandatory minimums deserve no credit for drops in crime rate.
“If crime is down and drug abuse is down, you credit the mandatory minimums. And if crime is up, or drug abuse is up, you say, we need more mandatory minimums. Under that theory, there’s not a single set of circumstances that can exist in which mandatory minimums are not necessary,” Newburn said. “It’s a magic trick. It’s the same magic trick when you say, oh the crime is down after 48 years – yes, of course it is, it’s also down everywhere else in the country.”
Bradley’s bill passed the Appropriations Committee unanimously.