Florida could ease penalties for possessing small amounts of drugs and eliminate some mandatory minimum sentences for drug dealers under a strict set of circumstances under a bill unanimously approved by a Senate committee Thursday.
Republican Sen. Rob Bradley said he's sponsoring the bill because of a growing recognition that the criminal justice system needs a new approach to dealing with drug crimes and addiction.
“What we now know is we can divert low level drug offenders from state prison and it won’t negatively affect public safety. In fact, it may make us safer,” Bradley said. “I think we can probably all agree that when it comes to how we deal with drug addiction and the criminal justice system, we can do better.”
The bill would give judges more discretion in sentencing all but the worst drug dealers. Sentencing of drug offenses that currently carry a 25-year mandatory minimum sentence wouldn't change. But judges wouldn't be bound to mandatory minimum sentences for people selling smaller amounts of drugs.
For a judge to have that discretion, the convicted person could not have a previous forcible felony conviction, would have to be a first-time offender, was unarmed at the time of the offense, didn't use violence or a credible threat of violence during the offense, wasn't the leader of an ongoing drug operation and the offense didn't lead to the serious injury or death of another.
The bill also calls for no more than 12 months in a county jail for possession of small amounts of drugs other than fentanyl.
Bradley said only about 5% or less of the current prison population would have benefited from the legislation had it been previously approved. The bill doesn't call for retroactive application if it becomes law.
Bradley said the Department of Corrections could save about $50 million a year by reducing the prison population under the proposal, but he said he isn't motivated in the least by the potential savings. He suggested that some of that savings could be used for drug treatment or diversion programs.
“Let me be clear: Drugs are an absolute scourge on our society,” Bradley said. “If I thought for a second that this bill would increase pain and make things worse, I wouldn’t file it."
But he said judges should be able to have more flexibility in unique circumstances.
"I actually genuinely believe we’re going to save lives and make our society a little safer and a little more just,” Bradley said.
The bill was unanimously approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee, the last stop before a full Senate vote.
“We're trying to fix a system that's broken,” Democratic Sen. Oscar Braynon said. “We are finally looking at the drug crisis as if it affects everyone. So we're thinking about it as a health crisis now.”
The bill also has several other provision, including a requirement that investigators record from start to finish any interrogation of someone in a detention facility who is suspected of committing certain felonies.
It also would expand a law that allows people imprisoned for crimes they didn't commit to apply for compensation from the state. Right now, people previously convicted of unrelated violent felonies can't seek compensation for wrongful incarceration. The bill would eliminate that provision.