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Capital Report: Both Parties Taking Aim At Mandatory Minimums For The 2020 Session

Steve Cannon
AP Photo

Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers in Florida’s legislature are taking aim at mandatory minimum sentencing for non-violent offenders. Bills dealing with the rigid sentencing guidelines are advancing, and still being filed ahead of the 2020 session.

Last session, while pushing a big criminal justice reform bill, Republican Senator Jeff Brandes decried the state’s more than 100 different mandatory minimums. This week, a committee chaired by Brandes passed a bill backed by one of his Republican colleagues, Senator Rob Bradley, that would eliminate some of them.

“Here’s what the bill does,” Bradley explained during Wednesday’s meeting, “it provides for a 12-month sentence, and no higher, for purchase and possession of less than two grams of a controlled substance, excluding fentanyl.”

The crux of Bradley’s bill is the autonomy it would grant judges who would have previously been bound my mandatory minimums when sentencing

“With regard to offenses with mandatory sentences of 25 years or more, the bill provides the court flexibility in sentencing, so that if certain circumstances are present – we have a safety valve,” Bradley said. “This empowers judges in drug cases to be able to deviate from minimum mandatories in certain situations and public safety can be protected.”

Bradley pitched the measure to his chamber’s Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice, saying it’s not only morally, but also fiscally sound.

“Sentencing reform for lower-risk drug offenders is the right thing to do, both from a human standpoint and a cost standpoint,” the Orange Park Republican told his colleagues.

On top of that, Bradley says public safety won’t be compromised.

“We can divert low-level drug offenders from state prison and it won’t negatively affect public safety,” Bradley said. “In fact, it will probably make us safer … According to page 19 of the report, and I quote, ‘low level offenders sent to prison had higher rates of recidivism compared to identical offenders who received sentences of community supervision.’”

The report Bradley references is one commissioned by the legislature, written by its Office of Program Policy & Analysis. The bill passed unanimously through the committee this week – but it didn’t come without questions. This one from Senator Brandes, concerning the measure’s two-gram threshold, indicated there may be changes coming to Bradley’s measure:

Brandes: “Would you consider, in future stops, allowing us to look at pills, directly – because obviously you could have two grams of heroin, straight heroin, or you could have four Lortabs, which is mostly acetaminophen, and only a small tiny bit of opioid. So, could we look at some mixture or combination thereof, of that amount?”

Bradley: “Absolutely, I’m open-minded.”

Democratic Senator Darryl Rouson inquired about whether the measure would be retroactive – to which Bradley said it would not.

In the House, Republican Rep. Alex Andrade has a companion bill that hasn’t been heard in committee yet. And another House bill goes even further - a measure to outright repeal mandatory minimum sentences for people convicted of certain drug trafficking offenses was filed by Democratic Rep. Anna Eskamani of Orlando.

Earlier this year, a coalition of advocacy groups, formerly incarcerated people and those with family members who are serving time held a rally at the Capitol to petition lawmakers for mandatory minimum reform.

Audrey Hudgins is the parent of an inmate who was given a mandatory minimum sentence. She called for reform on mandatory minimums to go beyond just drug cases.

“These reforms must go beyond the non-violent and low-level drug offenders, to include violent crimes as well,” Hudgins said from the steps of the Historic Capitol in Tallahassee.

Hudgins says her son was given a natural life sentence at 21 for an armed robbery he committed, in which he inflicted no physical harm on the victims. Hudgins insists under normal sentencing guidelines, her son would have been sentenced to up to 16 years in prison, but because of Florida’s Prisoner Releasee Reoffender Law, he got life.

“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 said.

A slew of other criminal justice measures will be up during the 2020 session starting in January. That includes several looking to reduce a state requirement that the incarcerated must serve 85 percent of their sentence, even with time earned, to 65 percent. Many have received bipartisan support through this point in the process.

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.