Senate advances criminal justice reform package

By: Jake Stofan | Capitol News Service
January 16, 2020

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (CNS) — Legislation allowing judges to hand out lower sentences in many drug cases is now ready for a vote in the full State Senate after clearing its final committee stop Wednesday afternoon.

Florida has made a number of criminal justice reforms in recent years, but there’s one area lawmakers say has been left out.

“Sentencing reform has been somewhat elusive,” said Senate Sponsor Rob Bradley.

If the bill becomes law, it would make some of the first major sentencing reforms in decades.

It would allow in certain drug trafficking cases, for judges to depart from mandatory minimum sentences.

“We could all agree that we could do better when it comes to dealing with the scourge of drugs in our society,” said Bradley.

The idea is facing opposition from law enforcement.

“Drug traffickers are killing people in our state with the poison that they're pumping,” said Gary Hester with the Florida Police Chiefs Association.

Prosecutors were also against the bill.

“When you get to the 15 and 25 year level of trafficking that is a lot of drugs. That is not a personal possession amount,” said Philip Archer, President of the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association.

But lawmakers were quick to refute concerns raised by opponents.

“Many of these people are girlfriends of drug dealers that get caught up in the whole thing and they're facing the exact same charge or similar charges the drug dealer's facing,” said State Senate Jeff Brandes.

While Sen. Bradley said the main purpose of the bill isn’t about cutting costs, he does estimate it could potentially save $50 million.

It’s money that could go a long way in a severely underfunded prison system.

"We have too much turnover in the Department of Corrections and we need to pay our corrections officers more,” said Bradley.

The bill also allows for people who have been wrongfully incarcerated, but have a previous criminal record, to receive compensation from the state.

It still has a long way to go.

The House is often more conservative on criminal justice issues.

The two sides will likely spend the next few weeks working on a compromise.

Copyright 2020 Capitol News Service. All rights reserved.