Florida Sen. Jeff Brandes

Florida Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg

Sen. Jeff Brandes’ proposed "Florida First Step Act" never got onto the floor during the 2019 legislative session, dying without a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The stymied bill proposed to house inmates in prisons closer to their families, allow non-profit organizations to create re-entry entrepreneur programs and reduce mandatory minimum sentences for those convicted of non-violent drug trafficking offenses.

Brandes, who has spearheaded the Legislature’s criminal justice reform effort for several years, was successful in getting some components of his measure approved within House Bill 7125, but addressing mandatory minimum sentencing was tabled.

On Monday, Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, pre-filed Senate Bill 468, which includes some of the sentencing revisions that were included in the St. Petersburg Republican’s 2019 measure.

Under SB 468, judges would be allowed to deviate from minimum sentencing if the court “finds the convicted person did not engage in a continuing criminal enterprise, did not threaten violence or use a weapon during the commission of the crime and did not cause death or serious bodily injury.”

Criminal justice reform advocates have long cited that the reliance on mandatory minimum sentencing results in too many people going to prison for too long at great cost not only to the immediately affected individuals, but to society.

Brandes’ bill is not the only pre-filed criminal justice reform legislation addressing sentencing and due process in conviction reviews.

Sen. Randolph Bracy, D-Orlando, and Rep. Dianne Hart, D-Tampa, are sponsoring companion Senate and House bills seeking to reduce the minimum amount of time most non-violent offenders must serve to 65 percent of sentences, down from the current minimum of 85 percent.

Under HB 189, filed by Hart and Rep. Kionne McGhee, D-Miami, and Bracy’s SB 394, violent offenders would still be required to serve at least 85 percent of sentences.

“I have received overwhelming support from my constituents and from Floridians throughout the state for a retroactive measure that would reduce the time-served minimum to 65 percent," Bracy said in a news release.

Noting the state’s Department of Corrections (DOC) is seeking an $89 million increase in its fiscal year 2021 budget request for corrections officer pay raises and a phased reduction from 12-hour shifts, Bracy said SB 394 “is a direct response” to financial concerns by reducing state corrections costs by an estimated $860 million over the next five years.

Bracy on Oct. 1 also pre-filed a proposed "Conviction Integrity Review" bill to allow incarcerated people to submit petitions to the state attorney’s office requesting a review his or her conviction.

Bracy’s SB 260 would require the state attorney of each judicial circuit in the state to establish a conviction integrity review unit and an independent review panel within the state attorney’s office to respond to petitions seeking a review of convictions.

Hart on Monday filed HB 299, the House companion to Bracy’s bill.

“The evidence to right a wrongful conviction for so many Floridians arrives too late for a jury to hear,” Hart said. “The Conviction Integrity Review Unit reflects a willingness to consider that a conviction that has been legally obtained is not always accurate.”

“Requiring each State Attorney to operate a Conviction Integrity Unit will help restore public trust and confidence in the judiciary system,” Bracy said.