ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (FOX 13) - Sweeping changes could be on the way for Florida's criminal justice system.
A bill known as the Florida First Step Act is making its way through the Senate. The comprehensive plan starts in the courts - possibly eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for some non-violent offenders.
The St. Petersburg lawmaker sponsoring this bill says he hopes it at least starts a conversation about criminal justice reform in the sunshine state.
Senate Bill 642 passed its first committee in the Florida Senate this week.
Florida Senator Jeff Brandes, (R) St. Petersburg, said the goal is to “have the best criminal justice system in the country.”
Brandes said the state's prison system is in crisis. There are about 96,000 inmates in state prisons, yet programs continue to be cut. He believes the entire system needs an overhaul, bringing focus to rehabilitation.
“First it would allow for downward departure for mandatory minimum sentences,” Brandes told FOX 13 News. “We treat people who are drug mules or addicts like we do drug kingpins and that’s not appropriate. The best science, the best practice really is to get them into a drug treatment program.”
Brandes wants to give judges discretion when sentencing some non-violent drug offenders so they could pick a sentence that fits the specific person and crime.
The bill also seeks to keep inmates closer to their families, requiring they be locked-up within 300 miles of their primary residence.
While the proposal is gaining traction in Senate, critics point out crime across the state has dropped to the lowest level in 47 years.
“The First Step Act is the first step to causing more crime and protecting criminals, instead of looking out for the people in the state of Florida,” Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said.
According to FDLE data, there were nearly 1,100 murders state-wide in 2017, compared to almost 5,500 overdose deaths.
Judd argues all drug-related crimes are violent and dangerous.
“We already have great diversion programs. We already have great probation programs. Improve those programs, absolutely, help the mentally ill, absolutely, help those that are addicted to drugs, absolutely. But don’t cut at the core of this great criminal justice system that gives us a historic low crime rate,” Judd said.
This bill is modeled after the federal First Step Act that President Trump signed in December.
Gov. Ron DeSantis voted in favor of an early version of that legislation while in the House of Representatives but it’s unclear if he will support the statewide measure as governor.