Measures would ease criminal sentencing and help released inmates renew their lives.
TALLAHASSEE — A series of bills easing criminal sentencing and helping released inmates renew their lives has cleared a Senate panel, adding momentum to a proposed overhaul of courthouse data spurred by reporting in the Herald-Tribune.
A top senator said he is looking to package the sentencing changes with the data overhaul to try to win support from both the Senate and House as the session enters its scheduled closing three weeks.
“We’re in negotiations right now about how we’re going to land all these different things,” Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg. “But we’re happy with the pace right now and I think we’re coalescing around a lot of these ideas.”
Brandes is chair of the Senate’s Criminal and Civil Justice budget committee, which approved giving judges leeway on mandatory sentences, making it easier for inmates to get professional licenses when released, and limiting when someone’s driver’s license can be suspended.
Brandes for several years has pushed to rewrite Florida’s sentencing laws — many enacted 20 years ago — which critics say send too many first-time offenders and drug addicts away for years, costing taxpayers and society.
But any sentencing changes have been a tough sell in a Legislature wary of appearing soft on crime.
While Brandes says these reforms make sense, this year House leaders, including Speaker Richard Corcoran, a possible candidate for governor, have their own criminal justice priority.
The House’s must-have legislation would create a uniform databank containing information on arrest and bail proceedings, criminal sentencing and one that is searchable by the public through the Florida Department of Law Enforcement website.
That bill emerged following two years of reporting by the Herald-Tribune on racial bias in criminal sentencing that resulted in two series: “Bias on the bench,” published in December 2016, and “One War. Two Races,” published last year.
Those series found Florida’s criminal justice system is stacked against blacks. With bias especially evident in drug crimes, the paper’s analysis found that black offenders averaged far more time in prison than white offenders with comparable histories under state sentencing guidelines.
Corcoran said the House data bill will “throw back the curtain” and undo “all the institutional biases in the judicial system.” He said it would give Florida the most transparent sentencing system in the nation.
House Judiciary Chair Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, a former prosecutor, has not advocated for easing sentencing laws. But he acknowledged that he is working with Brandes and the Senate in getting the sweeping database legislation through the Legislature.
But in the kind of deal-making that marks the homestretch of most legislative sessions, that might involve getting the House to go along with some of the criminal justice changes Brandes and the Senate are promoting.
“We’re trying to be problem solvers,” Sprowls said of his relationship with Brandes. “We’re working together. Obviously, we’ve got a little time on the clock.”
The database legislation would require court clerks, state attorneys, public defenders, jail administrators and the Florida Department of Corrections to collect about 150 different data elements and transmit that information weekly to the FDLE.
FDLE would create a unique identifier for each criminal case — allowing the public to follow a defendant’s experience at each step of the criminal justice system. Lawmakers want the new data system up and running by next January.
But only $1.7 million in state money is earmarked by the House for the project, with some of it to help pay nine staff positions at FDLE, seen as needed.
That’s got the attention of the Florida Association of Court Clerks and Comptrollers, who say that handing clerks this task would cut further into the already-strapped finances of many circuits.
Fred Baggett, lobbyist for the association, said court clerks have lost $63 million, or 13 percent of their revenue over the past five years. That’s due largely to a decline in revenue flowing to clerks from traffic tickets, whose numbers have dropped since fines sharply increased a decade ago.
“It’s a good idea,” Baggett said of the database. “But it’s unrealistic to say it could be up by 2019.”