This year, criminal-justice reform has been high on the to-do list for state lawmakers. And it's about time.
We commend Gov. Rick Scott for signing a bill that will bring a touch of humanity and common sense to the state's courtrooms: The new law repeals Florida's "10-20-Life" law -- the guideline that now sets mandatory-minimum sentences for crimes involving guns.
Last week, Gov. Scott signed Senate Bill 228 repealing the too-rigid sentencing mandate. It's welcome recognition that the law removed judicial discretion in sentencing both hardcore offenders and young, more-naive offenders who might deserve a second chance.
A tip of the hat, too, goes to bill sponsors House Reps. Katie Edwards, D-Plantation, and Neil Combee, R-Polk; and Sens. Aaron Bean, R-Jacksonville, and Rob Bradley, R-Orange Park.
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This is the first real reversal of the state's tough-on-crime initiatives of the late 1990s, coming on the heels of several tourist murders and a booming homicide rate.
With a stroke of the governor's pen, here's what changes: The new law gives judges across the state flexibility when sentencing people convicted of gun-involved crimes. Under the 10-20-Life law, judges' hands were tied and they had to hand down a 10-year sentence if someone displayed a gun and a 20-year sentence if someone fired a gun -- including cases where the weapon was fired as a warning and not at an individual -- and 25 years or more is someone were wounded. There were no exceptions; now there are.
"This is a major victory for common-sense sentencing reform in Florida," Greg Newburn, state policy director for Families Against Mandatory Minimums said on Thursday.
It's also a path away from arbitrary sentences that overcrowd our prisons. And it allows judges to be judges by giving them discretion to consider mitigating circumstances, not just a blank decision that may ruin a life -- and there's no denying that many of those lives have been black lives.
The bill takes effect July 1, but it does not affect anyone currently incarcerated. But the sad cases of some of those imprisoned under this law led to its repeal.
Since 10-20-Life was enacted, more than 15,000 people have been sentenced under the law. Many bad people have been taken off the streets. But, "Unintended consequences are inherent to mandatory minimums," Newburn said. "No one anticipated 10-20-Life would be used to put citizens in prison for 20 years for warning shots, but that's exactly what happened."
The 2008 case of Orville Lee Wollard III, of Davenport, is often cited by those who pushed for repeal. Wollard is serving 20 years in a state prison for firing a warning shot inside his home to scare away his teenage daughter's unwelcome 17-year-old boyfriend; the shot was meant to scare the teen, and no one was hurt. But the use of the gun triggered the state's mandatory-minimum sentencing. Wollard was convicted of aggravated assault with a firearm, and a judge had no choice but to throw the book at him.
The governor rejected Wollard's request for clemency last year and offered no reason for the denial. But he did later follow the recommendation of his Task Force on Citizen Safety and Protection, which called on the Legislature to fix the unintended results of Florida's 10-20-Life law.
Gov. Scott has helped give Floridians a fairer criminal-justice system.