The Florida Legislature has finally seen the light and started tempering minimum mandatory prison sentences that were approved years ago by get-tough lawmakers with little thought to the long-term consequences.
It has unanimously approved legislation that would eliminate the inflexible minimum mandatory sentence for aggravated assault with a firearm, which has resulted in long prison terms that are gross mismatches for the crimes committed.
This would be a step away from arbitrary sentences that overcrowd the prisons and a smart move toward restoring some discretion to judges who are best able to determine appropriate punishments.
Gov. Rick Scott should sign it into law.
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Florida enacted the 10-20-Life law in 1999 in response to a rapidly rising violent crime rate. The law guarantees that defendants convicted of using a firearm in the commission of certain crimes spend at least 10 years in prison and up to life, depending on the crime.
The crimes include murder, sexual battery, robbery, burglary, arson, aggravated assault and aggravated battery. Under the law, judges have no discretion when a defendant is convicted of those crimes. Some judges have appropriately criticized the law for limiting their ability to apply sentences appropriate to the circumstances.
Since 10-20-Life was enacted, more than 15,000 people have been sentenced to prison under the law. As of last June, 235 inmates who had committed aggravated assault had been convicted under the sentencing guidelines.
Legislation sent to the governor, SB 228, would prevent defendants from being saddled with inflexible, illogical punishments by returning sentencing power for aggravated assaults to judges.
Lee Wollard III is a prime example of Florida's flawed sentencing system. Wollard is serving 20 years in state prison for firing a warning shot at his teenage daughter's boyfriend. No one was hurt in the 2008 incident, which Wollard said was his attempt to get a violent young man out of his home and away from his family. Wollard was convicted of aggravated assault with a firearm. The use of the gun triggered the state's minimum mandatory sentencing scheme.
Wollard's case ignited calls for justice by activists around the country. The governor rejected Wollard's request for clemency last year and offered no reason for the denial.
There is too much secrecy around the clemency process, because the clemency reports given to the governor and Cabinet are secret and the governor is not obligated to explain his conclusion. Those reports should be public, and the governor should be required to explain in writing his decision to support or oppose clemency in each case.
The governor and Cabinet should reconsider Wollard's clemency plea and the cases of 167 other inmates who are serving 20-year terms in state prisons for aggravated assault without intent to kill.
Minimum mandatory sentences sacrifice justice and common sense, and the 10-20-Life law is a perfect example.