The Florida Senate on Wednesday overwhelmingly endorsed a measure granting more discretion to judges in handing down sentences in drug-related convictions.
Senate Bill 346, sponsored by Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, is among criminal justice reform bills hotly contested by tough-on-crime expounders and the Florida Sheriffs Association’s Truth In Sentencing campaign.
But the measure sailed unanimously through three committee hearings and was adopted Wednesday without debate in a 39-1 floor vote, with Sen. Travis Hutson, R-Palm Coast, the lone dissenter.
The vote reflects the fact it’s “the right thing to do,” said Bradley, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee serving in his last session before being term-limited out of the Senate.
By “right thing to do,” Bradley was not just referring to incarcerated drug offenders, but to taxpayers. The measure is excepted to reduce the state’s 96,000 prison population by 4,800 for a potential savings of $50 million.
Tough-on-crime laws imposed in the 1990s have increased Florida’s prison population by 29 percent in two decades. The state has the nation’s third-largest prison population.
State corrections spending has increased correspondingly, up 60 percent in a decade, from $1.5 billion to $2.4 billion this year – the third-largest complement of the state’s annual budget behind heath care and education.
Bradley said criminal justice reform was a “third-rail issue” until taxpayers and lawmakers began wondering why prison costs were skyrocketing while crime rates plunged to record lows.
While drug crimes are a “scourge” on society, Bradley said sentencing reform is overdue, noting that gaining the support of the Florida Prosecutors Association was key in advancing the measure.
In past sessions, criminal justice reforms adopted in the Senate have failed to gain traction in the House. True to form, there is no House companion for SB 346.
A similar measure, House Bill 339, backed by a bipartisan mix of 27 sponsors, has not been heard in committee.
On Monday, however, House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, told the News Service of Florida he is “very open” to reducing sentences for some drug-trafficking offenses and would be willing to consider SB 346 after it moved through the Senate.
Under SB 346, non-violent offenders convicted of possessing or selling less than 2 grams of a controlled substance, other than fentanyl, may not be imprisoned longer than 12 months if it is their first drug-possession conviction.
The bill allows for judicial discretion in sentencing other nonviolent drug-related offenders, straying from minimum-maximum sentences. Among conditions for discretion is the offender did not use a firearm in commission of the drug-related crime, must never have been convicted of a violent felony crime and must be seen as having “truthfully” confessed.
SB 346 requires all interrogations be “electronically recorded in its entirety.” If not, a judge must consider “the circumstances of an interrogation” in determining if it can be used as evidence.
The bill also allows those wrongfully imprisoned since 2008 “who had a violent felony or more than one nonviolent felony before their wrongful conviction and incarceration” to no longer be excluded from compensation based on wrongful incarceration, which would be paid at the rate of $50,000 per year of wrongful incarceration up to a limit of $2 million.
Those who commit a violent felony or multiple nonviolent felonies during their wrongful incarceration will not be eligible.
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