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Senate, House Criminal Justice Reform Bills Advancing As Chambers Negotiate For Common Ground

Ryan Dailey

Two big criminal justice reform bills are moving through the Florida Legislature. Backers of the similar bills in both chambers are going through negotiations down the stretch to position a final measure for passage.

Senator Jeff Brandes backs the Senate’s version of the bill dubbed the Florida First Step Act, which he calls “one of the boldest criminal justice reform bills that has ever been seen in the State of Florida.”

In the past few days, he’s filed an amendment that would modify the state’s Truth In Sentencing law – reducing a requirement that the incarcerated serve 85 percent of their sentence, to 65 percent. That allows for inmates to accrue more gain time, or time knocked off of a sentence as a reward for good behavior.

“The vote was unanimous to support the Florida First Step Act as amended,” Brandes told reporters at a press conference immediately following a meeting of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice.

The bill makes other changes that have been heralded by reform advocates. It increases the threshold warranting a felony theft offense from $300 to $750 dollars. It also eases the process for the formerly incarcerated to get required professional licensing for certain jobs after serving their time.  With the new additions, Brandes feels the bill – true to its name – provides a comprehensive ‘first step’ to true reform.

“It includes provisions like allowing for 65 percent gain time for non-violent offenders, that allows for retroactivity of provisions that the Legislature in 2014 and 2016 made to reduce the mandatory minimums on certain crimes,” Brandes said. “That allows for the Legislature to put our focus on diversion, to put our focus on helping people transition back into society.”

Brandes is a frequent critic of mandatory minimum sentencing. His bill allows for more lenient sentencing for certain drug trafficking cases – those in which the perpetrator didn’t use a gun or other violence, and has not been convicted of a previous violent crime.

The House’s omnibus criminal justice reform bill looks to accomplish many of the same reforms as the Senate’s. But Brandes says there are differences.  

“Obviously the House has their one, and we allow for more discretion for judges. So I think there’s a couple different ways we can look at mandatory minimums. They get rid of one specific mandatory minimum - we’re trying to take the broader view of allowing downward departure for certain mandatory minimums in the state,” Brandes said.

One key difference is the House doesn’t include a provision in its bill concerning the Truth In Sentencing law. The omnibus bill is backed by Republican Representative Paul Renner. Renner’s colleague Representative Byron Donalds spoke about the House measure alongside Brandes at a press conference Tuesday. He says he’s open to the idea of adopting some of the Senate language, as details are still being hammered out.

“I think it’s something that I’m open to, I don’t want to speak for all my colleagues in the House,” Donalds said. “Like you guys know around here, everything’s being negotiated right now.”

Audrey Jennings-Hudgins, whose son was given a mandatory minimum life sentence, gave public testimony at the House Appropriations Committee meeting Tuesday as the measure passed. She says she hopes the House will move more toward the Senate with some of the bill’s provisions.

“I hope the House appropriations committee passes House Bill 7125 out of committee and is ready to adopt some of the amendments that will come out of the Senate,” Jennings-Hudgins said, “such as changing the 85 percent rule to 65 percent, so people can actually use the gain time they earn.”

Not everyone is on board with the idea of additional gain time. The Florida Sheriffs Association responded to Brandes’ amendment with opposition. In a statement Tuesday, FSA president and Columbia County Sheriff Mark Hunter writes:

“This bill allows criminals to escape the jail time that a judge determined to be the punishment that fits the crime—truth in sentencing is important.”

Ryan Dailey is a reporter/producer for WFSU/Florida Public Radio. After graduating from Florida State University, Ryan went into print journalism working for the Tallahassee Democrat for five years. At the Democrat, he worked as a copy editor, general assignment and K-12 education reporter.