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Senate proposes series of reforms that reduce sentences for non-violent offenders

The Florida Senate is drafting an ambitious package of bills that will reform the state's sentencing laws to give judges more flexibility, provide more productive alternatives for low-level drug offenders, and ultimately reduce Florida's prison population.

The Senate Criminal Justice Committee conducted a two-hour workshop Tuesday on its 10 proposals,  hearing from representatives of both public defenders and prosecutors.

The state has enacted 108 minimum mandatory sentencing laws over the last 30 years, ranging from five years in jail to life imprisonment. Each law reduces the flexibility a judge has and increases the power of prosecutors, who have the ability to determine what crime to charge a suspect with.

Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, the chairman of the committee, said that a series of reports and audits that focused on problems at the Department of Corrections also exposed the ineffectiveness of the state's sentencing laws.

"Some of the sentencing that we're doing is actually creating more harm than it is good,'' he told his committee.

According to recent audits and reports on the Florida Department of Corrections, the Florida prison system has not seen an increase in its prison population since 2009 and the prison population has since remained steady or decreased slightly. Yet, during that time, lawmakers have reduced spending on the Department of Corrections by more than $250 million, resulting in staff shortages, deteriorating physical plants and a explosion in the use-of-force

"We need to re-evaluate,'' Evers said. "We have either increase the amount of money we're spending or decrease the number of inmates so there can be a cost savings.''

The current system also has erred on the side of locking people up, Evers said. A report by the Reason Foundation and another commissioned by the Legislature found that Florida's policy of increased incarceration is not cost effective for about a third of Florida's inmate population because it is doing nothing to inhibit felons from returning to a life of crime once they are released.

 "We need to consider the damage you do when you take someone who is not a violent criminal and send them to a state institution to serve a two or three-year term when they would have been better off staying at the county level and serving nine months or going to a work-release center and still pay their debt to society," Evers said.

The reports found that the state provides meaningful drug treatment and skills-based programs for only 14 percent of all inmates, and so the state prison system has become a place where felons "go to get a college degree in being a criminal."

"The question for the committee is: Are we going to invest the power in judge or do we invest it in prosecutors,'' asked Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg. "We have judges for a reason and we should let them have an independent review of the case."

But Bill Cervone, state attorney for the Eighth Judicial Circuit, based in Gainesville, suggested that the current system is working well.

"All these mandatory [sentences] are tools that your predecessors have given us over the years,'' he said. "Many of these were enacted when crime was rampant. Crime is at an historic low so something must be working and somebody must be making some pretty good decisions."

Stacy Scott, public defender for the Eighth Judicial Circuit, countered that the current laws "give the prosecutor too much leverage" and too often drive plea agreements that result in longer sentences than necessary.

Among the proposals:

* A plan to divert first-time drug offenders to treatment programs. If half of the 1,980 inmates sentenced were diverted over the next five years, the state would save an estimated $61 million.

* Increase the minimum monetary value for the prosecution of theft from$100 to $600.

* Reduce the required time served for nonviolent offenders from 85 percent of their sentences to 65 percent. This could reduce the inmate population by 7,800 inmate over five years and save up to $419 million a year.

* Decriminalize minor amounts of marijuana.

* Allow felons who commit low-level, non-violent crimes to serve time in county jail or other non-state work release programs. The savings to the state is estimated to be up to $90 million over five years.