Florida Senators advance bill giving some nonviolent drug offenders a break on prison time

'I think it sends a strong message'
Posted at 7:43 PM, Jan 16, 2020
and last updated 2020-01-16 19:43:39-05

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Florida’s nonviolent drug offenders might soon be getting a break on prison sentences.

Senators in the Appropriations Committee sent Senate Bill 346 to the floor on Thursday morning.

It aims to give judges more discretion in drug offenses, which can carry hefty mandatory sentences.

Greg Newburn with Families Against Mandatory Minimums says too many Floridians are spending a decade or more behind bars for small-time possession charges.

“They go to prison for 15 years or 25 years because the judge has no discretion,” he said. “We see this over and over again.”

If the bill makes it to the governor’s pen— guilty first-timers with less than two grams of most narcotics, excluding fentanyl, won’t have to serve more than a year in jail. Offenders can’t be involved in gun crimes or felony violence to qualify.

Despite those provisions, opponents worry passing the bill is a safety risk and that it will allow too many drug offenders a free pass.

Associations for Florida’s sheriffs, prosecutors and police chiefs are all standing up against it.

“It will create loopholes for many drug traffickers that could potentially avoid any prison sentence at all,” said Gary Hester, speaking to lawmakers on behalf of the Florida Police Chiefs Association.

The bill could save taxpayers some money. It comes at a time when Florida prisons are being scrutinized for a high cost.

Sponsor, Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Orange Park, estimates the legislation could save about $50 million, reducing inmates by more than 4,000.

He was optimistic about the legislation’s progress, given that Senators unanimously advanced the policy for the third time.

“I think it sends a strong message that we would like to see more criminal justice reform this year,” Bradley said. “Proud of the progress that has been made thus far, but we have more things to do.”

A potential sign of trouble, a similar measure in the House is struggling to gain traction. It has yet to be scheduled for any discussion in committee.