Advocacy groups, formerly incarcerated people and those with family members who are serving time held a rally at the Capitol Wednesday. They came together to petition lawmakers for reforms to a criminal justice system they say is broken.
The Florida Campaign for Criminal Justice Reform is made up of organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union and Southern Poverty Law Center. The group is focused on bringing changes to sentencing laws, visitation rules and other matters that affect Florida’s prison population.
Audrey Hudgins has a personal stake in seeing reforms. Big on her list is mandatory minimum sentencing.
“My son William was given a natural life sentence at only 21 years old, for a non-violent, no physical harm crime. A natural life sentence means exactly that – you will remain in prison until you are no longer alive,” Hudgins said. “It is our prayer that we can get these mandatory minimum life sentences, as well as all other unjust sentences, reformed so the punishment fits the crime every single time.”
Hudgins insists under normal sentencing guidelines, her son would have been sentenced to up to 16 years in prison. But, Florida law didn’t allow for that.
“My son’s crime was armed robbery, which is considered a violent crime as it should be. However, armed robbery in itself does not carry a life sentence,” Husgins said. “He received his life sentence due to Florida’s Prisoner Releasee Reoffender Law.”
As a result, Hudgins says for the money her son stole during his crime, Florida taxpayers shell out upwards of $20,000 per year just to house him in prison.
Republican Senator Jeff Brandes is also critical of mandatory minimums. He’s the lawmaker behind the Florida First Step Act, the state’s proposed version of the national criminal justice reform act signed into law months ago.
“This state has over 100 mandatory minimums. And we catch all kinds of dolphins in that tuna net,” Brandes said earlier this month.
Brandes says mandatory minimums in most cases leave judges without their own discretion in sentencing.
“It is just amazing to see how damaging no discretion to judges is in this process, and how the legislature has removed that over time,” Brandes said.
The Pinellas County Republican says some harsh sentencing practices affect the formerly incarcerated well after they’ve finished serving their time.
“It’s damaging to see how we’ve added third felonies to different offenses, because you know what, ‘look, they didn’t learn the first and the second time, so boy we’re going to get them the third time.” And that third time is a life sentence, because you’ll carry that felony with you the rest of your life and every job application you go through,” Brandes said.
Brandes’ bill looks to chip away at mandatory minimum sentencing, starting with those related to drug trafficking. But to people like Audrey Hudgins, that doesn’t go far enough.
“These reforms must go beyond the non-violent and low-level drug offenders, to include violent crimes as well,” Hudgins said.
Judy Thompson is president of non-profit advocacy group Forgotten Majority. She also has a son in prison, and spoke at the Capitol about visitation rights.
“Almost a year ago to date, a group of advocates protested FDC’s callous decision to roll back in-person visitation, in favor of promoting J-Pay’s inferior video visitation at $2.95 a pop,” Thompson said, adding there are devastating effects of denying the incarcerated face-to-face time with loved ones.
“There are immeasurable benefits to being able to touch, hug, kiss, look into the eyes of your loved one,” Thompson said.
The Florida Campaign for Criminal Justice Reform is also asking legislators to consider racial disparities in the state prison system as it relates to the First Step Act. Scott McCoy is with the Southern Poverty Law Center Action Fund.
“Looking at the snapshot of the prison population in September of 2018 – 67 percent of people in prison for robbery convictions were black – while they only about 47 percent of Florida’s prison population,” McCoy said earlier this month. “That’s important because both the gain time provisions and the safety valve provisions, have carve outs for dangerous crimes. Making those individuals ineligible to have the benefit of the carve out.”
Angel Sanchez was tried as an adult when he was a teenager and served 12 years in prison. The Miami native, now 36 years old, can now call himself a graduate of the University of Central Florida. He’s now working on a law degree at the University of Miami. He visited the Capitol Wednesday to call for change.
“We want to let folks know that there are real lives impacted by this. It’s creating a legacy of incarceration; it’s hurting our community because individuals are coming out worse than they went in,” Sanchez said. “So we’re hoping we can do something comprehensively – make our streets safer, create a more just system, and at the same time be a lot more fiscally conservative and wise with our money.”