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Republican legislators want Florida to overhaul sentences

Brandes renews push to revamp criminal justice laws

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Buoyed by the passage of a criminal-justice overhaul at the federal level, the chairman of a Florida Senate budget panel said Wednesday it is time for the state to revamp its sentencing laws.

Some state lawmakers have pushed for several years to sweep away 1990s-era sentencing laws that were put in place amid a Republican push to get tough on crime. One effort last year to change sentencing laws fell apart in the waning hours of the 2018 session.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, who chairs a subcommittee responsible for setting the annual budget for the criminal-justice system, said Florida needs to act now because it is dealing with a full-blown “crisis.”

Brandes said the Department of Corrections is asking for a big budget boost this year to counter a long list of problems, including hundreds of vacant jobs.

Brandes said he will file a bill in a few days modeled on the “First Step Act,” which was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Donald Trump in late 2018. That measure reduced some sentences and gave judges more discretion when punishing drug offenders. But the law only applied to federal prisoners.

Brandes said he hopes Florida legislators will follow the lead of other states such as Texas and push ahead with changes.

Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Naples, said he would sponsor a similar measure in the Florida House.

“The simple truth is we are on an unstable path in the criminal-justice system as it stands today. We can’t afford to stay on this path. And the exciting thing is we know the ideas that work,” Brandes said.

The push by Brandes is being backed by a long line of groups, including several well-known conservative organizations.

One key question is whether new Gov. Ron DeSantis would support the legislation if it reaches his desk. Supporters pointed out DeSantis voted for the First Step Act when he was in Congress. But on inauguration day, DeSantis vowed to stand with law-enforcement agencies, some of which have resisted past reform efforts.